With Mass Shootings on the Rise, Law Enforcement Agencies are Updating their Active Shooter Training & Response Tactics Based on Lessons Learned

It’s a grim reality:  In America, there are more mass shootings annually than there are days in the year. The massacre at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center on Dec. 2 marked the 355th mass shooting this year, a jarring statistic that sent shockwaves throughout the nation.

The federal government declared the mass shooting an act of terrorism and the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  The shooting (and attempted bombing) targeted public health employees at a holiday event. In less than five minutes, 14 people were killed and 22 injured in the center’s conference room.

It took four minutes for the first police unit to respond to the San Bernardino shooting following the initial 911 emergency call. (See police video showing the swift response). The swift and immediate police response reflects the new kind of training and response tactics for Active Shooter incidents.

The fundamental change is that law enforcement officers are training in Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) tactics.  This is a rapid-response tactic where responding officers take immediate action to confront a threat – as opposed to attempting to control a threat.

Law enforcement agencies are also working to strengthen their incident command structures based on lessons learned from previous tragedies, including the Washington Navy Yard Shooting in 2013, which involved multiple responding agencies in a complex, chaotic environment.

The Columbine Massacre: A Wake-Up Call

The tragic Columbine High School shooting in 1999 was the wake-up call that prompted a quantum shift in training and response for Active Shooter incidents. The columbine article-2523414-1A16C05900000578-463_634x391perpetrators –  two senior students in a suicide pact –  killed 12 students and a teacher in a highly planned attack that also involved bombs and explosive devices. The incident brought about the realization that a much faster police response was needed for Active Shooter cases.

The responding officers from various Denver-area agencies set up a perimeter around the school to contain the shooters, but they did not enter the building for 30 minutes. This reflected their training at the time, which was based on the concepts of containing the situation and waiting for SWAT team members to arrive, mobilize, and respond.

However, “contain and negotiate” tactics are intended for hostage situations –  not for Active Shooter responses, according to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) publication, The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents.

Unlike a hostage situation, “active shooters aim to inflict mass casualties as quickly as possible, usually in a matter of minutes. Many active shooters do not target any particular individuals, but rather try to kill as many people as possible,” according to the report.

Under the new rapid-response approach, street officers are being trained to take immediate action, rather than waiting from SWAT teams to arrive.  They are trained to run toward the sound of gunshot and remove the threat in order to save lives.

The IARD tactic, therefore, is used during active shooter incidents or other life-threatening situations where delayed deployment could result in death or grievous bodily harm to innocent persons.

Variations in Police Response to Active Shooter Events

In its report, PERF examined police response to Active Shooter incidents and changes in officer training from 2000 – 2014.  PERF based its findings on dozens of Active Shooter policies it received from police and sheriffs’ departments of various sizes.PERF

PERF found that there were variations in policies based on the department’s size and conditions (rural vs urban), but noted that the policies are universally “built around the reality that even a one-minute delay in responding may result in multiple additional fatalities.”

The new approach to Active Shooter incidents has not been easy to implement, however. The rapid-response tactic has also raised concerns about officer safety – particularly the patrol officer who has not received the complex training that specialized teams such as SWAT units receive.

PERF noted that the goal of an Active Shooter policy is to “reduce the inherent confusion that can occur when multiple agencies respond to a quickly changing, extremely violent event … Thus, a policy that is carefully tailored to Active Shooter events can result in a faster, better organized response that can save lives.”

Many departments’ policies note that stopping the shooter must be an absolute top priority, and that rescuing or providing medical assistance to victims is a secondary priority to be addressed only after the shooter or shooters have been neutralized, according to the report.

San Bernardino Police Response: Swift and Professional

At San Bernardino, the two perpetrators had fled the scene before police arrived. The first responding officers arrived almost simultaneously; another officer arrived two minutes later and together they entered the building and began to evacuate the survivors.san-bernardino-shooting

Luckily, the San Bernardino SWAT team was conducting its monthly training exercise a few miles away from the scene at the time of the attack “and was able to arrive quickly, already wearing protective gear,” according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Upon locating the suspects a few hours later, the officers raced to confront the killers in their black SUV with the support of BearCat armored personnel carriers. After the SUV stopped, the perpetrators were killed after exchanging fire with police from inside their vehicle.

Ultimately, about 300 officers and agents from multiple agencies responded to the Active Shooter event, including the FBI. Seven police agencies were involved in the final shootout, with 23 officers firing a combined total of approximately 380 rounds.  FBI’s investigation later revealed that the perpetrators were “homegrown violent extremists” and that the male shooter was a public health employee.

Law enforcement experts and the community praised the San Bernardino Police Department, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies for the way they handled the incident, according to the Los Angeles Times article, Police tactics in San Bernardino Rampage win high praise from experts.

As noted in the Los Angeles Times: The San Bernardino officers “did what they were supposed to do: come to the location, get together with a team of three, four or five officers and make entry,” said San Marino Police Chief John Incontro, a former LAPD captain who oversaw the department’s SWAT team. “The goal is to find the suspect and stop the threat.”

The Washington Navy Yard Shooting Issues and Challenges

The swift and coordinated response effort at San Bernardino is indicative of lessons learned from previous Active Shooter tragedies in the U.S.  One such incident at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC,  shed light on the need for multi-agency coordination and a Unified Command. During this mass shooting  on Sept. 16, 2013,  a lone gunman methodically killed 12 people in Building 197 before being killed by police.Navy-yard

Hundreds of police, fire, and emergency medical personnel from several different agencies responded to the Navy Yard after receiving news of the shooting.  “Officers relied upon their training, experience, and instincts to run into an unfamiliar and massive building, towards the gunshots and certain danger,” according to the After Action Report  detailing lessons learned.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) report analyzed 35 issues with the agency’s response to the incident — noting that “there were a variety of challenges that impacted the detailed, orderly, and efficient demobilization of personnel and resources.”

Among its findings, the report said officers from various agencies were operating on different radio channels and unable to communicate. There was also no single, overarching staging area, making it difficult to track and manage all personnel and assets.

When the responding officers arrived, they also had difficulty finding the location of the building in which the shooting was taking place. They eventually found Building 197 after moving towards the direction people were fleeing from.

In the PERF report, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier outlined the challenges that the MDP and other agencies faced during the response effort, including:

Building Structure and Environment

  • Complex, “maze-like” layout with thousands of cubicles and office areas, and extremely narrow hallways and pathways

Incident Command

  • While most of the critical roles were established early in the response, there were various branches and functions that were not clearly or effectively established, and not all responding agencies reported to Incident Command.

Unified Command

  • Too many command buses which diluted agency representation
  • Insufficient representation of all key agencies in Unified Command


  • Some officers had a difficult time transmitting vital information over radio channels. There were numerous people transmitting on the main channel.

Self-Dispatching Officers & Accountability and Tracking of Personnel

  • Numerous officers responded to scene; many in plainclothes. In addition, there were some personnel who did not have their credentials or badge conspicuously displayed.
  • Difficult to determine who entered the building and who may have discharged their weapon

Concern for Blue-on-Blue Engagements

  • Over 100 officers, forming several active shooter teams, entered the building during the initial search for the shooter

Determining Who Was in Charge of Base

  • Several different Navy command officials on-site and responsible for different buildings/facilities on the Navy Yard
  • Getting rapid access to floor plans, CCTV, decision makers, etc.


  • A variety of factors made it difficult to track and manage the orderly and efficient demobilization of all personnel and resources

Witness Management and Investigative Response

  • Thousands of potential witnesses
  • Coordination with many other agencies with direct involvement in the response, as well as those agencies in supporting roles or impacted by incident.

The PERP report noted that “Like other critical incidents, active shooting incidents typically generate a great deal of incorrect information as they are happening. One of the biggest challenges for responding agencies and incident commanders is to quickly organize the collection of information so incorrect reports can be sorted out.”

To help ensure a more collaborative response effort, the After Action Review recommended that “personnel from different agencies should receive standardized training, which results in a consistent understanding of tactics, communication, and approach. Collaborative training is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of a coordinated response by all involved. Ultimately, all personnel who arrive on scene should report to and be deployed by the incident commander.”





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