TSG IntelBrief: America in the Age of Active Shooters
September 27, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• A September 26 shooting in Houston, TX, that left 9 wounded and the shooter dead is just the latest in a surge of active shooter situations.
• Three days earlier, a man killed five people in a Burlington, WA, mall with a rifle, forcing an evacuation and calls to shelter in place.
• Law enforcement procedures for active shooters were altered in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting to reflect the urgent need to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible.
• With the confusion inherent in any report of shots fired—coupled with a country on edge over terrorism—active shooters present a massive challenge for law enforcement.
Of the many challenges local police departments and communities face, ‘active shooter’ situations are among the most chaotic and disruptive. The term ‘active shooter’ was once relatively unknown outside of law enforcement. That same term is now a headline somewhere in the U.S. on a near-weekly basis. The definition of such an attack is relatively straight forward—‘an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a conﬁned and populated area’—yet nothing about the real-time response to active shooter incidents is straight forward.
The ‘active’ part of the ‘active shooter’ label refers to whether the shooting is believed to still be unfolding as law enforcement responds to the scene. Generally, responding officers will have little more information than an initial call for ‘shots fired’, followed by additional calls suggesting a larger issue than an isolated shooting incident. One immediate challenge with any suspected active shooter situation is the widespread confusion that ensues. Initial reports—both from eye witnesses as well as other responding officers—are almost always conflicting or inaccurate. Echoing gunfire coupled with information from numerous witnesses often give rise to reports of multiple gunmen. Though responding officers must take reports of additional gunmen seriously, such reports almost always turn out to be false. Attacks involving multiple gunmen—like the November 2015 Paris attacks—are the exception, while the July 2016 active shooter incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge are the unfortunate norm.
FBI statistics show that the years 2014 and 2015 each saw 20 active shooter incidents (the FBI does not include gang or drug related shootouts). The deadliest active shooter incident in 2015 was the December 2015 San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people. Between 2014 and 2015, 92 people were killed in active shooter situations—a very small percentage of the number of Americans killed yearly by gun violence. Apart from active shooter situations, mass shootings (defined as four or more people killed or injured by gunfire) get the most media coverage. However, mass shootings account for only 2% of annual U.S. gun deaths. Nonetheless, with mass shootings such as the June 2016 Orlando nightclub attack—which killed 49 people in one incident—2016 will likely see an increase in these numbers.
The November 2015 attacks in Paris, followed by San Bernardino and Orlando, have raised the specter of active shooter situations becoming a new tactic of choice for terrorists in the West. Shootings such as those in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July 2016—which targeted police—prompted understandably heavy responses to subsequent reports of multiple gun shots fired across the U.S. Though such responses were necessary and proper given the circumstances, heavy responses also led to incidents such as the partial shut-down of JFK Airport after a report of gunshots, which was determined to be unfounded. Two weeks later, a false alarm prompted another evacuation of a major U.S. airport, this time at LAX. As with terrorism, reports of active shooter incidents—and the law enforcement response to those reports—are a mixture of real and credible concerns with inflamed worries. Unfortunately, active shooter cases appear to be on the rise in 2016. Increased training for both law enforcement response, as well as the response of other emergency services and local government agencies, will be critical as the trend line likely continues upward.
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