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Preparing for Active Shooter Incidents: Adapting to the Latest Tactics and Anticipating Future Trends

Stuart K. Cameron, Assistant Chief of Patrol, Suffolk County, New York, Police Department

The first modern active shooter incident occurred in Austin, Texas, on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas at Austin clock tower with an arsenal of weapons. Whitman, a former U.S. Marine, used military tactics and training to shoot 46 people over a 96-minute period, wounding 32 and killing 15. His accuracy was tragically refined; at one point, he killed Austin Texas Police Officer Billy Speed by firing through a six-inch gap between the pillars that Officer Speed was using for cover. While this attack is somewhat atypical when compared to more recent active shooter events, it does fit the common definition of an active shooter in that Whitman was an armed individual who had used deadly physical force on others and continued to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims. Whitman’s preparation and planning wasn’t overly complex or detailed, but his tactic of using height and firepower to his advantage is certainly a well-established tactic for military snipers. Whitman acquired some of the materials necessary to further his plot on the morning of the attack, which could lead one to conclude that his preparations were less detailed than some of the more recent incidents. The clock tower provided a 360-degree range of fire and made it very difficult for police to rapidly terminate the attack. Whitman’s prior military training and lifelong experience with firearms seem to have been adequate to prepare him for this event, and there are few indications that he specifically trained for his assault. Since this incident was essentially the first of its kind, Texas law enforcement had to adapt and develop response tactics on the fly. While it did take over an hour and a half to stop Whitman, it is clear that without the heroic law enforcement intervention that occurred that day, Whitman would have taken more lives.1

At the time of the Whitman incident, the concept of training non-specialized law enforcement personnel for rapid deployment to stop an active shooter attack was still decades away. In this incident, and many others that would follow, law enforcement action was the key to stopping the attack and saving lives. Since Whitman’s attack in 1966, many active shooters have expressed a desire to outdo each other by causing higher numbers of casualties. They have increasingly studied prior tactics and developed new tactics of their own. In order to adequately counter this threat, law enforcement agencies need to take both a tactical and a strategic approach. Police officers need to be trained in tactics to respond to these types of incidents while departments prepare strategically by studying prior attacks. This type of study can enable them to identify new tactics and continually develop methods to counter them.

Training for Active Shooter Incidents

Many law enforcement agencies across the United States have trained their sworn personnel in rapid deployment active shooter response tactics. This training is a critical component of an overall strategy to counter the active shooter threat; however, this type of training alone is not adequate preparation. Rapid deployment tactical training is a perishable skill, which therefore requires refresher training on a regular basis. To maintain those skills, law enforcement agencies need to work closely with potential targets, which can include a wide variety of venues. Attacks have occurred at schools, malls, movie theaters, military installations, hospitals, churches, mass outdoor gatherings, nursing homes, restaurants, and many other locations. An active shooter event could occur at virtually any target. Law enforcement outreach should be conducted at potential target venues. This outreach should include information about how an agency would respond
to an event of this nature and provide best practice guidance to increase security while lowering the possibility of an attack. Familiarity with the layout of vulnerable locations and knowledge of information included in their emergency response plans can save time during a response. Saving time is a critical response component, since any delay is likely to result in additional casualties. Law enforcement must be able to move rapidly to terminate the attack.

The effectiveness of the response to an active shooter event may be increased through the utilization of certain specialized equipment that not all law enforcement agencies may be able to afford. Partnering with other agencies that possess this equipment, in advance of an incident, will allow access and help ensure timely response during an incident. In addition, to partnering to share equipment, agencies should routinely train together to increase their effectiveness. In many parts of the United States, it is likely that officers from more than one law enforcement agency may arrive on the scene simultaneously. Standardized training and tactics, combined with routine response exercises, can make interagency coordination far more effective.

Law enforcement planning for the response to an active shooter event must be an ongoing process. Every agency should designate a member to review each new active shooter event to determine whether there are any new and unique tactics utilized during the attack that would overwhelm the agency’s current plans, training, or equipment. Since Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower in
Austin, the tactics used during subsequent attacks have evolved, increasing in complexity and challenging law enforcement agencies who respond to these events.

Active Shooter Tactics

Some of the tactics active shooters have developed and utilized include using body armor, blocking entryways, employing diversionary tactics, using or threatening to use explosives, firing from high-capacity firearms magazines, and conducting attacks with multiple attackers.

Body Armor

Body armor of some type has been used during several recent mass shooting events. In one incident on April 4, 2009, 22-year-old Richard Poplawski opened fire on police officers who responded to a call at his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Poplawski was described as lying in wait for responding officers while wearing his body armor. He killed the first three officers who responded and was then able to hold off police for approximately four hours. Although he suffered leg wounds, the body armor protected his torso. While not a classic active shooter incident, Poplawski’s successful use of body armor in his attack was widely publicized at the time of the event for proving effective in prolonging the attack.2

On May 9, 2003, Biswanath Halder, a disgruntled former student, breached his way into a building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Halder was wearing a military-style flak vest and a helmet. Shortly after entering the School of Management building, Halder killed a student using one of the firearms that he was armed with that day. The Cleveland SWAT team rapidly entered the building, but due to the layout of the building, it took them several hours to take Halder into custody after he was wounded in one of several firefights. Halder had killed one student and wounded two other people before he was captured.3

As reported in the media, James Holmes, who killed 12 patrons and wounded 58 more in the Century Movie Theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, wore extensive ballistic protection when he attacked the theater. Ultimately, Holmes surrendered to police without resistance as they arrested him next to his car at the rear of the theater. The body armor did not substantially impact the police response to the event.4

With the exception of the event in Pittsburgh, the use of body armor ultimately had little significant impact upon the outcome of these events. This has not always been the case. During a bank robbery gone bad in North Hollywood, California, in February 1997, body armor played a critical role by protecting the robbers from small arms fire while they fired on the local community and responding police officers with modified, fully automatic assault rifles.5 Should an active shooter opt to fight to the death with responding police officers while wearing similar body armor, the rapid availability of weapons that can defeat this body armor could be a vital component to the law enforcement response.

Delay and Diversion

As officers learn during rapid deployment training, time is critical during the response to an active shooter incident. Delaying the response of arriving law enforcement personnel gives attackers additional time to engage more victims. To that end, attackers have intentionally blocked entryways in a number of recent attacks. When Charles Carl Roberts took 10 young female Amish students hostage in a one-room schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006, he barricaded the doors and windows with lumber and heavy wire ties that he had brought with him. When Roberts began shooting the girls, the Pennsylvania State Police were hampered in their efforts to enter the school and stop Roberts. Without these barriers, the tragic outcome may have been different.6

Less than a year later, Seung-Hui Cho utilized chains and locks to secure the three main doors into Norris Hall when he attacked Virginia Tech. These barriers slowed the responding police officers, thereby buying Cho additional time to shoot helpless students.7

In another tactic designed to delay intervention or prevent victim escape, Jiverly Wong parked his father’s car against the rear door of the American Civic Center in Binghamton, New York during an attack there on April 3, 2009.8 Blocked entryways both hamper the ability of officers responding to terminate the attack and the ability for potential victims to escape the location under assault. A comprehensive law enforcement agency active shooter response plan must include the means to rapidly breach intentionally blocked doorways. Any delay faced by the responders potentially allows an attacker to increase overall casualties. Familiarity with potential attack locations should also include alternate means of ingress and knowledge of how to access them.

The use of diversionary tactics has been employed by several attackers with varying degrees of success. When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris attacked Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, they planted a diversionary explosive device in a park some distance from the high school, with the apparent intent to draw away the school resource officer and other responding police.9 During an unprecedented attack in Norway on July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik began his two-phase attack by detonating a large vehicle bomb near a government building in Oslo. Shortly thereafter, he began an attack at a youth camp located on a nearby island, killing a total of 77 people, most of whom were killed during the shooting.10 In Colorado, James Holmes apparently intended to create a diversion by drawing law enforcement personnel to his apartment with a loud stereo rigged to attract attention. Holmes had left the apartment door unlocked and booby-trapped the residence using a trip wire, explosives, and flammable materials.11

Modern day law enforcement professionals must continually evaluate conditions during the event at hand and contemplate whether the given incident is simply what it appears to be or is actually part of a larger plan. Maintaining situational awareness and frequently reevaluating a critical event as it unfolds should be employed at every major incident.

The worst school attack to occur within the United States was one that occurred in Bath, Michigan, in 1927. Andrew Kehoe set his farm on fire just prior to detonating explosives that he had hidden within the Bath Consolidated School. As rescue work was under way, Kehoe drove his explosive-laden truck into the midst of the rescue efforts and detonated it.12 The use of explosives to attack innocent populations is nothing new. Combining explosives, or the threatened use of explosives, with an active shooter attack has occurred since Bath with varying degrees of success. Klebold and Harris incorporated 99 homemade explosive devices into their attack on Columbine High School, ranging from two large vehicle bombs designed to harm responders to small cricket-type improvised hand grenades.13 As mentioned earlier, Andres Breivik in Norway and James Holmes in Colorado also incorporated explosives into their attacks as diversionary devices. When Seung-Hui Cho chained the doors of Norris Hall closed, he also reportedly left a note stating that the doors were booby trapped, presumably as an additional means to slow down responding law enforcement officers.14 Responders need to be very aware that explosive devices could be involved in any attack, including booby traps designed to kill or injure responders themselves.

Several active shooters have employed high-capacity firearm magazines to reduce their need to reload their weapons and speed up their ability to kill people. Jared Loughner utilized high-capacity magazines for his Glock handgun during an attack on an outdoor political function in January 2011.15 James Holmes intended to utilize a drum-style magazine in his assault rifle during his attack in Aurora, Colorado; fortunately, it appears that the weapon jammed during the attack.16 Attackers often possess numerous firearms and large amounts of ammunition. During an attack on Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, on October 16, 1991, George Hennard was able to hold off responding officers who ultimately had to request additional ammunition. Much like the officers in Austin, Texas, who engaged Charles Whitman, these officers responded heroically and engaged Hennard in a lengthy gunfight. Hennard ultimately committed suicide after officers wounded him during the gun battle.17

Some attacks have involved multiple attackers. Perhaps the most notable of these was the attack on Columbine High School, which involved two attackers.18 Another school attack that occurred prior to Columbine, on March 24, 1998, near Jonesboro, Arkansas, was committed by two middle school students who killed five people and wounded ten more. One boy pulled the school’s fire alarm, and then they waited outside and opened fire on classmates and teachers as they fled.19

Many attackers have not only studied prior attacks, they have also expressed their desire to outdo them by creating higher casualty counts. As attacks escalate in violence, attackers will surely seek out new and creative tactics. They will continue to vary their selection of victims, choosing those that will shock the consciousness of the public. Law enforcement must not be complacent in their planning efforts. They must study each attack that occurs, looking for new and unique tactics, to determine if they need to adapt their training, strategies, and procedures. They should always attempt to anticipate new tactics and relentlessly prepare to the best of their ability. Advance planning, up-to-date prevention and response practices, comprehensive training, and acute awareness of the current threat environment have the potential to save countless lives if an agency is faced with a mass shooting incident. ?

1Gary M. Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders (Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, October 1998).
2“Police: 3 Officers Killed in Pa. Shooting,” Crime & Courts,, April 4, 2009, (accessed December 23, 2012).
3“Cleveland Shooter had Military Training,” CBS News, February 11, 2009, (accessed August 30, 2013).
4“James Holmes Built up Aurora Arsenal of Bullets, Ballistic Gear through Unregulated Online Market,” CBS News, September 19, 2012, (accessed December 23, 2012).
5Gregory J. Wilcox, Jaxon Van Derbeken, and Jeannette DeSantis, “North Hollywood Bank Heist Erupts in Gunbattle; 6 Civilians, 10 Officers Injured; 2 Robbers Killed: March 1, 1997,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 23, 2010, (accessed December 27, 2012).
6Jonas Beiler, Think No Evil: Inside the Story of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting and Beyond (New York, New York: Howard Books, 2009).
7John Giduck, Shooter Down: The Dramatic, Untold Story of the Police Response to the Virginia Tech Massacre (Archangel Group Ltd., 2011).
8Rivera and Schwebber, “Before Killings, Hints of Plans and Grievance.”
9Jeff Kass, Columbine: A True Crime Story, A Victim, the Killers, and the Nation’s Search for Answers (Denver, CO: Ghost Road Press, 2009).
10“Norway Attack: At Least 80 Die in Utøya Shooting, Seven in Oslo Bombing,” The Guardian, July 2, 2011, (accessed December 22, 2012).
11“James Holmes Built Up Aurora Arsenal of Bullets.”
12Arnie Bernstein, Bath Massacre, America’s First School Bombing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, March 16, 2009).
13Kass, Columbine.
14Giduck, Shooter Down.
15“Jared Loughner ID’d as Giffords Shooting Suspect,” CBS News, January 8, 2011, (accessed December 22, 2012).
16“James Holmes Built Up Aurora Arsenal of Bullets.”
17Elinor Karpf and Jason Karpf, Anatomy of a Massacre (Waco, Texas: WRS Publishing, 1994).
18Kass, Columbine.
19“A School Shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Kills Five,” This Day in History, The History Channel, March 24, 1998, (accessed December 28, 2012).

Please cite as:

Stuart K. Cameron, “Preparing for Active Shooter Incidents: Adapting to the Latest Tactics and Anticipating Future Trends,” The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): 54–57.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 5, May 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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