Marching to the Sound of Gunshots

Virginia Tech incident puts emphasis on active shooter response


     Many seasoned patrol officers remember being trained to do the opposite. In the old days, officers were instructed to race to the scene, secure the perimeter and wait for backup. But times have changed. IARD bases its tactics on the premise that if officers are called in to a shooting spree within a structure, they need to take immediate action, says John Gnagey, NTOA executive director. Today the patrol officer has become the catalyst, who can make or break an operation by his response. Departments instruct officers to secure the immediate area, assess the danger, determine where the threat is at and move toward the gunfire at a sustained pace to stop the killing. Once officers pinpoint the suspect, they can either disarm him, if the opportunity presents itself, or take his life.

     "This is a thinking man's game," stresses Lt. Roy Coleman of the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Police Department, who was among the officers dispatched to Jonesboro's Westside Middle School shooting in 1998, which left four dead and nine injured. "Officers need to be smart and alert to fully assess the situation they have and act on that assessment to protect the lives of innocent people."

     Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, who as a member of the Jefferson County (Colorado) Regional SWAT Team was summoned to both the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006, compares police response in these two incidents to illustrate IARD's evolution.

     At Columbine, first responding deputies from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office did exactly as they'd been trained to do — they controlled the scene, contained it, attempted to make contact with the shooter and called in SWAT. As part of the team making the first entry into Columbine, DeAndrea led SWAT officers through the central part of the school, the music and science areas, then the library. "Thinking we may have a hostage situation, we were on a stealth probe, moving through the school, attempting to contact the shooters," he says.

     Law enforcement adapted its response after the Columbine tragedy and taught patrol officers or deputies to respond directly to the threat. "This is exactly what happened at Platte Canyon," DeAndrea, a member of the Arvada Police Department, says. In this situation, a suspect burst into the school, entered an English room, dismissed the male students and the teacher, and took seven female students hostage. When Park County Sheriff's Office deputies arrived, they formed a contact team and responded immediately to the besieged classroom. Their assessment found no loss of life occurring, so officers surrounded the room and summoned SWAT for hostage negotiations. Though the hostage-taker released five teens, tactical officers breached the classroom after a bomb threat. They freed one of the remaining teens, but the shooter shot another girl in the head as officers simultaneously shot and killed him.

Never a SWAT mission

     Though these new and dynamic tactics can definitely save lives, especially when it takes just minutes for a shooting spree to end, there are a number of officers who initially resist. Some veteran officers oppose taking on something traditionally viewed as SWAT's job, DeAndrea admits. But through classroom education and realistic training, those attitudes quickly change.

     Adds Gnagey, "This was never meant to be a SWAT mission." Tactical teams may be called in — they are also trained in active shooter response. But when these teams are lifesaving minutes away, it's critical that patrol intervene. "SWAT still gets their slice of the pie," Coleman says, "and it's the harder piece of it because they must check every storage bin, closet and air duct."

A fluid response

     IARD applies in a variety of cases, whether the situation involves an unauthorized intruder in a school; an active shooter; an attack with an edged weapon; placing, detonating, wearing or carrying explosives devices; or nuclear, biological and chemical attacks or threats. The technique may be applied in schools, churches, governmental buildings, offices, factories, shopping malls, sporting venues, hospitals, public utility buildings and more.

     The NTOA's IARD course teaches officers dispatched to active shooter scenarios to first observe the scene to ascertain whether entry is necessary. If shooting continues or people on-scene indicate the gunman remains inside, the need for entry becomes perfectly clear, says Martin, a 28-year law enforcement veteran and a member of the Greenfield PD training team. The incident is then considered an active shooter scenario and officers must respond in kind.

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