Active shooter events: Fight, flight, and better understand

by SHERIFF LEON LOTT October 27, 2017

sheriff Lott _ full by tc 600 px

An active shooter event - basically defined as a scenario wherein an individual or group of individuals are actively engaged in killing and wounding, or attempting to kill, people in a populated area - is a terribly unfortunate reality of the 21st century.

We could easily spend days and weeks debating and trying to determine the who, what, why, and how of this reality. The "where" or "when" is anybody's guess, though we are constantly working to stay ahead of those two pieces. The "what" you as a potential victim can do, we'll get to momentarily.

Law enforcement is constantly seeking ways in which we might better mitigate the active-shooter threat and how we might more effectively respond to the event when it escalates beyond the level of a threat. We accomplish both the threat-mitigation and the response to that threat through a variety of means, not the least of which is the information provided to us by the public which helps us develop good actionable, finished intelligence.

We are also always developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as well as new technologies; and we are training - utilizing those TTPs and technologies - for every imaginable active-shooter situation in every possible environment.

What few people realize is that we have actually been far more successful preventing attacks than not.

The public, of course, will hear about the dramatic and terrible attacks like what we all witnessed in Las Vegas earlier this month. But few outside of law enforcement, the military's special operations community, and the national intelligence community are privy to the great successes we have all had thwarting these events before they were ever launched.

Still, active-shooter events - like any other capital crime or terrorist attack - happen.

So, one of the biggest questions is, what do you as a potential victim do if you find yourself caught up in an active shooter situation?

Your two basic initial choices are "fight or flight."

Depending upon your given situation and environment, your personal physical abilities, and your proximity to the attacker; you have a split-second determination to make: Do I fight or otherwise engage and neutralize the immediate threat? Or do I flee to safety?

If you choose the latter - the "flight" - option (and more often than not this will be your best option), you will need to be aware of your surroundings and your avenues of escape no matter where you are.

You need to be always vigilant and always aware of escape routes. When you walk into a building, you should always know where the exits are located. Keep a clear head when the shooting begins. Don't panic.

In Las Vegas, for instance, many lives were saved because people in the shooter's target area, immediately sought and found cover. No one initially knew where the shooting was coming from, so they sought cover behind and beneath some sort of physical protection. Then when there was a pause in the shooting - likely when the attacker was reloading - those in covered positions ran as fast as possible toward safer cover.

This may sound simple, but in an attack, what might seem simple, becomes muddled in your head. Adrenaline is surging and the brain is quickly overloaded. Therefore, your reaction must be both smart and instinctive.

If you choose to fight, be prepared physically and mentally to do so.

As I reflect back on what happened in Las Vegas, I am struck by four key variables:

First, the attack was totally unexpected and horrific.

Second, law enforcement's response was near textbook. Some have been critical of the response timeline, but this criticism is utterly baseless. The speed at which the responding officers were able to determine the source of the attack and rapidly move tactical forces into the unknown - determining whether to take elevators or stairs, clearing areas in front of them and securing areas behind and on their flanks - and ultimately gaining and securing the objective on the 32nd floor of a vast high-rise hotel with always-finite resources and potential victims all around them, was nothing short of extraordinary.

Third, the media, as good as they are at what they do, sometimes provide information that is less-than helpful. Granted, the public has a right to know as much as possible about this heinous crime. But do all the technical aspects of the shooter's weapons and techniques need to be made public? The average citizen has little need or interest in such. But too much specific information can, however, be used to inspire and enable any potential copycat shooters.

Fourth and lastly, as costly as this attack was - 59 dead (including the shooter) and another 546 wounded or otherwise injured - I am convinced that cool heads and many unknown heroes on the ground saved many lives and helped many probable victims escape to safety. We know some of them. We will never know them all. 

Leon Lott _ thumb 2016Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E's hit TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq - at the invitation of the Iraqi government - to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.    

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