How Would You React In A Shooting? Have A Plan, Experts Say

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 9, 2014 10:28 am

The annual number of mass murders and attempted mass murders in the U.S. has tripled since 2008, to 15 last year, according to statistics that the FBI and Justice Department have been citing in recent weeks.

In a new study posted online by the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, experts make the case that "police have, generally, done an excellent job responding to active shooter events quickly."

But, they add:

"Fast and effective police response comprises only part of the answer to limiting the damage done during these attacks.

"Also important are the actions that civilians take to protect themselves during the 3 or more minutes that it takes the police to arrive. Civilians need to be trained about what to do if one of these attacks occurs.

"A variety of resources are available at no cost. Federal agencies, including both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, endorse the use of the teaching technique of 'Run, Hide, Fight' to explain to civilians how they can protect themselves and others around them. Police departments and the communities they serve should work together to implement this training."

Two of the study's authors, J. Pete Blair of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University and Terry Nichols, a retired commander from the San Marcos, Texas, police department who now works at the response training center, tell Morning Edition's David Greene that it's clear to them that Americans need to think about what they would do if they get caught in such a terrifying event.

We've heard this kind of advice before, of course. In August 2012, as Korva wrote, the city of Houston produced a video about about how to respond to gunfire in a public place. It focused on the "run, hide and fight" techniques. The federal Department of Homeland Security has its "Active Shooter: What You Can Do" course.

The experts who spoke with Morning Edition suggest imagining how you would react if confronted with such a situation at your workplace, home or other locations. They have a three-word action plan as well: "avoid, deny, defend."

"If you can get away" and avoid the situation, Blair says, do so. "If you can't avoid ... we want you to deny [the shooter] access to your location." Think about places that can be barricaded.

But if that's not possible either, "as a last resort, if it comes down to it, defend yourself. ... When you're right there and the violence is happening directly in front of you, it makes sense to get involved."

According to Blair, in "roughly 1 out of 6 attacks ... the people on the scene take action and stop the shooter themselves."

"I'm not asking you to be a cop," Nichols adds. "I'm asking you to be prepared. ... Have a role in your own survival."

The key, they say, is to "have a script."

Much more from their conversation with David is planned for Thursday's Morning Edition.

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It is among the most troubling calls a police department can receive, the report of an active shooter. It could mean a domestic dispute or a gunman on the loose. We all remember Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado. Those events, mass shootings, have actually spiked in the U.S. in recent years.

J. PETE BLAIR: In a nutshell, what we're looking at is instances of attempted mass murder. Somebody goes to a location with the intent to kill a lot of people. From about 2000 to 2008, you see roughly five attacks per years going on, and then in 2009 there's a spike where it goes up.

And since 2009, we've been averaging about 15 attacks per year.

GREENE: That's criminologist J. Pete Blair. He co-authored a new study on mass shootings with Terry Nichols, a former police commander, now with the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. Nichols helped found that center after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Most of the victims there died while police were waiting outside the school for back-up.

TERRY NICHOLS: Back in 1999, our standard response protocol for law enforcement patrol officers was to contain the situation and call specialized units to handle it, the SWAT teams. And what Columbine taught our profession was like while cops are outside waiting for what we call the guys and gals of Velcro and hair gel to come solve this problem for them, innocent people are dying inside the school.

So we saw the need to train our first responders to get in the door very quickly and solve this problem so innocent people don't die. We don't have the luxury of waiting for SWAT teams.

GREENE: There's the feeling I have of a single police officer going to an event like this. In the past the protocol would've been for a single officer to call for backup. I mean you're saying that a police officer should be ready to go right in and do whatever he or she can do to stop this?

NICHOLS: Absolutely. And I think what you saw at Arapaho High School in Colorado back in December was that exact thing happened. You had a school resource officer assigned to that school and when the shots rang out and the school went to lockdown, that one officer, by himself, went running to the sounds of gunfire to go put himself between innocent victims and evil.

Now, we don't advocate telling cops to light their hair on fire and just go running in the building. We teach specific tactics to do this. But we are that thin blue line and we stress that to law enforcement. If you can go in by yourself and make a difference, you need to do that. But there's a way to do that as well.

GREENE: And what sort of training or weaponry is really critical for a police officer to have now if this is the type of roll they might have to play that they might not have had to sort of have in the past?

NICHOLS: You know, there's a couple things here and our data has proven this out, is one, more and more suspects armed with long guns, rifles. You know, we consider a hand gun a defense weapon. I know this flies in the face of a lot of folks out there and police administrators that don't feel like patrol officers need a patrol rifle. That's a SWAT team issue.

But I will always take a police administrator and put him in a 100-yard long hallway in the school and ask him, could you save someone's life by using deadly force shooting a pistol down a 100-year hallway? The other thing we push is teaching police officers the medical skills they need to save lives before EMS gets into the scene.

And then finally, we need to provide officers with the body armor that's capable of stopping the rifle round.

GREENE: Dr. Blair, let me bring you back into this conversation because the study that we're looking at found a surprising number of these incidents actually ended with the shooter being subdued by bystanders before police ever arrived on the scene. So tell me about that.

BLAIR: That's correct. It's about half the incidents are over by the time the police get there. The most common thing you see is that the attacker has stopped himself when the police arrive. And the most common way they stop themselves is to commit suicide. And the other thing we see, though, is that it's roughly one out of six attacks that the people on the scene take action and stop the shooter themselves.

Dave Binky(ph), who is a teacher at a school in Colorado, had an incident like that. There was a guy with a rifle out in the parking lot who started shooting at kids as they were coming out of school. He was on parking lot duty. Because of the other incidents that had happened in Colorado, they had had some training and he went over and tackled that guy and stopped him from shooting anybody else.

So often times, as a normal member of the public, you think, well, I can't face somebody with a gun, and certainly you wouldn't choose to do it. However, the data here clearly shows that it is doable and if the situation is you dying or you fighting, you can fight and you can win.

GREENE: I mean, it's sort of amazing to think about the idea that everyone should be prepared to fight a gunman, but the civilian you're describing who was on parking lot duty, I mean should anyone who has a job like that or perhaps just anyone be ready to do something like this and think about what their role should be if they're ever in an active massacre like this?

BLAIR: We talk about disaster preparedness in general. Just spending a few minutes walking through and thinking through your head, if this occurs, this is what I would do, can provide you with a script so that if an emergency happens, you're better prepared to act. You know, the federal government talks about run, hide, fight. We call it avoid, deny, defend, which means if you can, get away from the situation, get out of the building.

If you can't avoid because you hear gunfire ringing out in the hallway, then we want to deny access to your location, so close and lock doors, barricade doors, that sort of thing. And as a last resort, if it comes down to it, defend yourself.

GREENE: Terry Nichols, as a police officer, is it dangerous even to suggest to civilians that they should get in the way of a shooter, even if it's not in every case, but even suggesting that sees like you're telling people that they should think about playing a law enforcement role that maybe they're not trained for.

NICHOLS: I think instead of playing a law enforcement role, we're trying to get them to understand they have a role in their own survival. A 911 call from Columbine that we use in many of our training classes from a teacher who was in the library that day, she was screaming at all the kids to get under the tables, get your heads down under the tables, kids.

She had never really mapped out what she would do if. So she went with what she knew and that was get down.

GREENE: I'm almost afraid to ask, but what happened to her at Columbine?

NICHOLS: She was shot initially. She survived. Tragically, most of the fatalities at Columbine happened in the library.

GREENE: You say that you use her story now in training. What ideally should she have done differently?

NICHOLS: I always hate to second guess people that are in the middle of tragedy like that, but can we learn from it? And she's asked numerous times by the 911 operator, can you lock the door, and again, she had never mapped out or done a script like we talk about - what would I do if.

Again, we go to the avoid, deny, defend strategy. They couldn't get out of the library so the next phase we'd want to do, we would encourage them today to do is barricade that door and then be prepared to fight if they had to.

GREENE: I want to ask you, if people hear our conversation, I could see several reactions, one being that these mass shootings are taking place with more frequency, which is alarming, and the other the sense that if you're saying training is necessary, sort of a fear that my community is really not prepared for this. Are those rational fears that people should have right now, Dr. Blair?

BLAIR: Whatever community they're in, the chances are their police department has been trained in some sort of rapid response tactic. And as far as your own preparation, all we want people to do is take a few minutes and just think through, you know, what could happen and what I would do in those scenarios so they have a script so if something occurs they're ready to respond, rather than being in the situation and panicking and not having any idea of what they should do.

GREENE: J. Pete Blair and Terry Nichols, thank you so much for talking to us about this. We appreciate the time.

NICHOLS: Thank you for having us.

BLAIR: Thanks.

GREENE: J. Pete Blair is a criminologist with Texas State University and Terry Nichols is assistant director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center. You were listening to them on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.