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Active Shooter: Dealing With “Street Reality”

by George on April 25, 2011 09:06

So much has been written, talked about, and trained about the subject of police response to the “Active Shooter” (AS).  For years advocates of the “formation” have brooked no dissent and have held that the formation (whatever particular formation they have emotionally bought into) is the only method of training and responding because nothing else is “safe.”  These formations are complicated affairs with strict fields of fire that must be maintained while moving in a chaotic environment.  So little has actually been proven regarding this training in the real world that these claims—and the training that has resulted in the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of personnel hours—must be considered extravagant and ultimately wasteful.

I believe, as we have seen in the real-world of police responses to AS events, that the limited-number officer response is fundamentally the most successful doctrine we have available.  Solo officers have isolated the AS and limited additional carnage to innocents, ending the event either through their own gunfire or by motivating the suspect to initiate his/her end-game of suicide-in-place.  There has not, as yet, been a lot of room clearing during the event while it is still evolving.  There has been a lot of running to the sound of gunfire and then maneuvering for a shot.  None, that I know of, has involved a response by formation to an active event where there has been interdiction to a suspect who was currently engaged in murdering others.

Formations?  Not-so-much.

A little history of the various formations is important before moving into a discussion of street reality.  All of the various formations—the diamond, the “T,” the “Inverted V,” and others—are modifications or directly taken from the military.  The proponents point to the fact that if the military continues to teach these formations, they have intrinsic value.

The context in which these “formations” are valuable should be the only interest for those evaluating how to respond to an Active Shooter (a term Jeff Martin and I coined in 1999).  Each of these formations were developed and useful for crossing a large open area where it is unknown if there are hostile forces, and a large number of personnel are involved in the movement.  Dispersion (distance between personnel) is maintained to minimize casualties, and sectors of fire are established to increase the detection of the enemy and to prevent blue-on-blue (friendly fire) shootings.

The current requirement of a “tail-gunner” is a recent law enforcement development that resulted not from a real event, but from the creative imagination of two SWAT cops during a training scenario.  These two “suspects” hatched plans about how “they would do it.”  While one of the “suspects” kept the formation’s attention, the other circled around by climbing through the ceiling and duct work, and took the officers in the formation by surprise from behind.  The boogey-man was created, and thus was born the need for a tail-gunner.

The misapplication of these formations—inside a building with officers bunched up—has now been taught to most officers.  This formation training, with its needless, theoretical, and historically redundant tail-gunner, is too slow and inefficient to deal with the real-world demands of an AS event.  The theory is that the officers wait until a sufficient number arrive on-scene.  Quickly forming up, they move as a group with each member maintaining his/her field of fire.  As they pass a room, the formation collapses to permit clearing of that room through entry by two or more personnel.  Clearing that room, the formation is reformed and moves to the next doorway, where it is then cleared.  Meanwhile, the gunfire continues, and more innocents are butchered.

Bunching up creates a bigger target.  Believing that “firepower” will protect the members of formation only shows that this concept has not been thought through.  Officers will mask other officer's weapons, creating "friendly fire" problems or preventing officers from being able to fire.  While more personnel have more weapons and theoretically more “firepower,” each weapon (actually, each pair of eyes controlling a weapon) in the formation is not immediately pointing at the suspect’s position as he emerges from his position.  Each officer will require many long tenths of a second to orient that he is under fire, where that fire is coming from, overcome their surprise and fright, decide that a response is needed, what that response looks like, how not to shoot his/her partner, and then execute that response to the threat.  Meanwhile, the suspect is able to immediately shoot (he has no target discrimination requirements, so he doesn’t take a half-second determining “if” he should shoot or not), and then able to put out one round every two-tenths of a second into the group of the officers standing in a bunch just yards away.  So a more realistic timeline is:

  • If an officer is looking at the suspect as he emerges and levels the weapon at the group of officers and fires; and,
  • If that first officer is switched on and extremely well-trained, that first officer will return fire within approximately one-half second due to target discrimination requirements and natural human time requirements in processing changes in the status quo of his environment.  In the meanwhile, the suspect is firing an average of five rounds per second at the officers; and,
  • If the other officers are able to overcome their surprise and have not yet been seriously injured by the suspect’s fire, they will likely return fire within three-quarters to one-second of the suspect’s first firing—after four to five rounds fired by the suspect into the group of officers; and,
  • If the suspect is hit by the first officer’s round and if the suspect is unable or unwilling to continue firing, then he will have likely fired only two or three rounds into the group of officers; but,
  • If the first officer misses and the suspect is able to continue to fire for a second-and-a-half to two-seconds, he will have fired seven to ten rounds into the group of officers standing in a group.

A key factor of actual Active Shooter (non-hostage) shootings: it has been estimated that from the first shot until the last shot in any of these events, one person is murdered for every fifteen seconds that the shooter is permitted the freedom to continue hunting and killing his victims.  We now have a tragic track record, with a sufficient number of events having taken place to gain some insight as to how they unfold.  In an average event, if responding officers wait for a sufficient number of officers (four to five), organize and form up, and then move in formation toward the suspect, the murders of innocents will already be well under way or over, well before any of these officers can intervene.

Formation training is a waste of time and expense.  It unproven in the real world, and is unlikely to perform as advertised.  It is an unsafe and misapplied technique in an environment that requires speed, agility and flexibility of tactics, as well as aggressive action to limit the rapidly accumulating loss of life experienced in these events.

Immediate Response to the Active Shooter

Ideally, two officers will respond within seconds of each other to the scene, permitting them to team up and move to the sound of gunfire.  Ideally they will employ “traveling overwatch” until they believe they are close to the shooter, and then transition to bounding overwatch as they get closer to the danger, bypassing any open or closed doors.  As soon as one of the officers sees the shooter, and if it is apparent that individual is intent on continuing to murder others, the officer should immediately shoot the suspect without warning.  The second officer should maneuver into position to provide cover for the first officer from any unknown threat (a possible second shooter)—“Contact and Cover” principles always apply. The officers should, if possible, contact the shooter while separated as widely as possible, providing interlocking fields of fire. 

However, upon arrival of the first officer to the scene of an Active Shooter, an extended ETA for a second officer of even 30 seconds is unacceptable and signals the need for a “Solo Response.”

The initial responding officer (for the balance of this discussion, I will use the male pronoun, with no disrespect intended for female officers) should deploy from his vehicle parked as close to the entry point as possible (while guarding against as many lines of threat as possible) and will approach from the most protected path of ingress.  Armed with a shoulder weapon (ideally a red dot-equipped rifle) and as much ammo as possible (three magazines in a Mumbai/Beslan event will last about one-minute), ballistic vest (should be already worn), a ballistic helmet, clear protective eye-wear (e.g. ESS ballistic eye-wear), and breaching equipment (bolt cutters and some type of hooligan tool, e.g., Benchmade’s Model 172 “Tomahawk”), entry should be made.

If the sound of gunfire can be heard, the officer should carefully and swiftly move toward it—run to the sound of gunfire—keeping cover and concealment options between him and the apparent origin of fire.  There will be the dead and dying.  All injured or dead should be bypassed—they will be cared for by follow-on assets.  There is one mission:  safely interdict the suspect(s) and stop the killing.  As the officer perceives he is nearing the suspect’s location, rapid movement is replaced with cautious aggression.  By this time, it is likely that nearly everyone without a gun has gone to ground and is attempting to get very, very small and hidden.  People are going to be cowering, and taking the chance to exit only if it seems safe to do so.  Parents will be desperately shushing their children.  A crowded area may initially seem almost deserted.

Communicate your position and progress as it is safe to do so.  The radio can be your friend, but your weapons and tactics will save your life.  Stay off the radio unless you have something you need others to know about the situation that will help you survive and prevail over the shooter.

Open doors or store fronts should be bypassed quickly while moving and shots are still being fired.  This is a variation of the “Forget the Boogey-man” Theory.  While many authorities insist that each room or area must be searched and cleared to prevent being attacked from behind, the responding solo officer should forget about the boogey-men that could possibly be hidden along his path of approach and focus on the identified threat(s) in front of him.

Being mindful of the background at all times—if that is possible in this situation—the officer should fire upon the gunman as quickly and early as possible.  Many of the AS suspects almost immediately commit suicide upon the realization of police presence.  If all it does is succeed in getting the suspect to engage the officer, it has at least diverted him from the murder of innocents.  A 150 yard shot with a pistol is not out of the question--and should be taken--given the goal of diverting his attention stopping the killing.

If the suspect is inside a room (as in a school) or inside a shop (in a mall), attempt to engage the suspect from the outside in.  Don’t make entry unless it is absolutely needed.  A dynamic pie slice or slide across the entrance while engaging the shooter is safer than making entry.  If the shooter has apparently posted in a hard corner, a limited entry (eyes and weapon only) is often the best option.  Hit him, and withdraw.  If entry is a necessity due to circumstance, enter along the path least likely to be obstructed and fire on the move.  Do not stop.  Entering, posting up, and shooting from a static position is the last option, and the least safe.

If he retreats because of your presence, be aggressively cautious in following him.  Sprint from cover to cover, keeping as concealed as possible.  Be constantly ready for any attack.  Shoot at him (and hit him) as soon as possible, and continue shooting until he is down to prevent his gaining access to more victims and/or potential hostages.

Once the suspect is down, be prepared to defend yourself against a possible second suspect.  Never handcuff the suspect alone.  That is a two-officer task at minimum.


It is time to give up the misguided notion of formation techniques in the response to an Active Shooter.  Not only are they misapplied, but they are dangerous to the officers attempting to respond to this dangerous situation.  They are less than useful because they are slow, giving the shooter much more access to victims.  Additionally, consider this:

  • How frequently are officers trained in these formations?  Once a year in forward thinking agencies, but generally once or twice in a lifetime for most officers.  With dearth of frequent training, how well will officers perform this complicated technique under real-time pressures, hearing gunfire, and moving toward the shooter?
  • What is the quality of that training?  Training cannot duplicate real-life.  However, training can sometimes approximate it, and the closer to real-life this training is, the more likely it will be that the formation fails and falls apart.

Instead, the response should be contextually-correct:  time is of the essence in saving lives;  a solo-officer response early is better than a multi-officer response too late to save lives.  The officer should be armed with a shoulder weapon and breaching equipment.  Running to the sound of gunfire, and being cautiously aggressive when close, the suspect should be fired upon without warning upon first being observed.  This should disrupt the shooter’s murder spree and get him to focus on the officer.  Hopefully the suspect will be like most who engage in this type of mass murder, and will immediately turn the weapon on himself.  If not, he just might engage the officer, giving the civilians a possible break.  Backup officers will then assist in stopping the suspect, and take him into custody (in whatever manner that manifests).  Following officers can then respond, set up a Casualty Collection Point, assist in a thorough search for additional suspects and victims, and secure the scene.

It is time for tactics to change to fit the real-world realities of the Active Shooter incident, and increase the likelihood of interdicting these murders of innocents.  A solo officer, or, if there is near simultaneous response, two-officer teams moving aggressively and tactically to the sound of gunfire and immediately shooting the gunman/gunmen is, to date, the only real response that can be expected to save lives.  Time to update training programs, drop the archaic and impractical formation concept, and deal with the real world as it is, not how we’d like it to be.

Equipment Note:  Every officer should be equipped with breaching equipment as standard gear carried in every patrol (burdening the sergeant's car with even more equipment than is required now doesn't make sense as the supervisor may not arrive for the first ten minutes of a call--cops who need the equipment should have it available to them).  The equipment should consist of:

  1. Bolt cutters.  This should be standard equipment presently in every officer's car.  If your agency won't purchase it, shell out the $35.00 for one of your're the one who will be listening to people dying and not able to enter, not your Chief.
  2. Benchmade Model 172 Tomahawk.  Designed for military breaching requirements (not as an antipersonnel weapon), it is perfectly suited to breaching obstacles preventing access and ingress.  Easily portable, it is part hooligan tool and part breaching axe.  Its small size belies big capabilities.  For a 40% discount on all Benchmade products, contact us at and request a "Benchmade Discount Form" (law enforcement, military, Fire, and EMS only).
  3. ESS professional eyewear is available for a 40% discount through Cutting Edge Training.  Contact us at and request an "ESS DepRep Discount Code."

Be safe.  Shoot straight.