Evolution of Strategy and Tactics to Ongoing Deadly Action "Active Shootings" and Operational Art

An active shooter is defined as "... an armed person who has used deadly physical force on other persons and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims.[1]

The vision most law enforcement officers have when it comes to an active shooter is one or two people with guns moving through a building, randomly shooting anyone in their path. Active shootings are often thought of as taking place in a public place, such as a school where kids attend.

Westside Middle School, Thurston High School, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the Amish school house in Pennsylvania and many other schools, universities and campuses have been victims of an active shooting incident. The fact that many of the offenders are children themselves, combined with intense media attention, cements the idea that active shooters take out their rage on schools.

Unconventional Methods of Attack

The fact is that an active shootings can take place in any environment—in the streets, as in the case of gang related violence or cornered criminals in an effort to gain the advantage; at the workplace, often by a disgruntled employee; at a shopping mall, perhaps by a kid who lost his girlfriend or job,; even in nursing homes, hospitals and neighborhoods.

We are witness to a worldwide evolving threat from highly trained active shooters. Terrorists have used small arms and small unit swarming tactics at luxury hotels, restaurants, train stations, community centers, cinemas, police headquarters and other public locations. Recent examples include the coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India and the premeditated shootings at Fort Hood, Texas and the gangs and narco-terrorists on the Mexican border.

The North Hollywood shooting in 1997 is yet another example of a conventional crime turned unconventional, when an armed confrontation between two heavily-armed bank robbers and the LAPD. It started when the robbers were engaged while leaving the bank they just robbed by LAPD patrol officers.

Some had a difficult time describing the Beslan Russia school siege and massacre in 2004. It was a siege, a hostage situation, a terrorist act and an active shooting situation. It is also underscored how an adversary can use a combination of tactics in an effort to disrupt our response and delay our actions.

How should we handle adversaries who use small arms, small unit tactics and multiple techniques converging on multiple targets from numerous directions in a single incident? The answer lies in our dedication and discipline to prepare and train for these incidents.

It is imperative that we use our capabilities to the fullest: awareness, strength of character, information and intelligence gathering, decision making abilities and tactical skills are essential to successfully combating any active shooting situation. It is critical that we penetrate the decision making cycle of an adversary to soften his resolve, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system so he either stops his actions and complies or is disrupted by the terms of law enforcement.

An active shooting can a take place any where, any time. And the types of active shooters vary greatly in their levels of sophistication, planning, preparation and training and their commitment. In a study conducted by the law enforcement training company Hard Tactics researcher William Barchers, concluded that; the faster a shooter is confronted, the higher the probability of event resolution with minimum loss of life. The group studied 40 active shooting incidents. Seventeen incidents were resolved by the shooters themselves, with the shooter ceasing his attack and committing suicide, or attempting to do so. In at least three cases, the shooters ceased their attacks when verbally confronted by someone they knew. In the remaining cases, the shooters were overcome by physical confrontation by the intended victims.

One of the most important facts to emerge from this study was that of the forty studied incidents, only six were resolved by police. We must continually learn-unlearn and relearn from past incidents and then adapt the science and art of tactics to the unfolding circumstances.[2]

Time and Failure to Adapt… the first enemies of law enforcement

Time is often the enemy of law enforcements in the case of an active shooting because initially the shooter dictates the tempo. Most active shootings begin and end in 8 minutes. The Mumbai terrorist attack carried out by 10 men in 5, 2 man teams lasted over 60 hours and left 195 people dead and 295 wounded.

Because of this fact we in law enforcement must not only focus on the standard training, diamond and T-Y formations and moving towards the guns. We must employ superior situational awareness to read the scene, recognize the pattern of what’s going on and channel our ability to think on our feet. The elements of a strategic and tactical mindset include observing our environment; orienting to climate of the situation; making good sound implicit decisions; and taking action to solve the problem. We solve the problem by applying what we know to the situation at hand, known as ‘operational art’.

Full Spectrum Police Officers and Operational Art

Following the Columbine incident and criticisms of the law enforcement response in that case, many learned that “setting up a perimeter and waiting for SWAT to arrive,” while deadly action is taking place, is unsound strategically and tactically. The lessons learned here and from many other incidents have reshaped law enforcements thoughts on proper strategy and tactics in handling violent ongoing deadly actions.

Most in law enforcement could tell you exactly what’s expected of them when responding to an active shooting situation. Go to the location of ongoing deadly action, wait shortly for back-up 1, 2 or 3 other officers form a diamond or T-Y formation and then march to the sounds of the guns and stop the ongoing threat. If there is shooting going on, keep moving towards the sound of the guns, engage the threat and stop it. There are documented cases where this tactic has worked well in resolving conventional active shooter situation and are viable tactics under the right conditions. Those conditions being, one or two people, not highly trained, armed and actively engaged in shooting innocent people. Our training in the conventional active shooting response can and does work with these conditions present.

The traditional 4 man diamond formation, which most in law enforcement have trained in, has been adapted due to the time/risk factor and the numbers killed in these tragic incidents. The 3 man (T –Y formations), 2 man and even 1 man entries are used to engage the conventional active shooter. There is often no time to wait for SWAT and patrol officers must respond. Oftentimes we have to adapt standard tactics (science) with know how (art) to be effective in stopping these threats.

This means each cop on the street or patrolling a city, town, university or campus, a security officer on a post or military personnel defending the country abroad must possess more knowledge in understanding conflict and its resolution and the mastery of individual and small team skills to launch successful operations dealing with conflict and violence inherent in an active shooting situation. Applying this knowledge, connecting strategy and tactics, is operational art and is the often missing link in law enforcement responses.

Preparation for initiative driven tactical response

The first question that must be asked in deciding what type of response is necessary in the active shootings, law enforcement responds to, should be "is immediate dynamic action required?" If lives are in "imminent" jeopardy, then the answer is yes... If it is they are in danger and no imminent threat to life exists, then the option may be a non-dynamic scaled response.

Action must do two things: (1) further friendly strategy, or (2) attack enemy strategy. By attacking enemy strategy, victory can often be won before the battle starts.[3]

Putting the friendly strategy in place allows us to "attack the enemy strategy" by containing him. His options are few, and time, in most cases is now on our side. The subject may simply see he has no options and give up, or impatience may put adversary in a disadvantageous position, we can exploit to gain advantage.

Reading the Scene

It’s crucial for the first responding officers to take up positions so that they get eyes on the objective in an effort to read the scene. The information they gather is critical and must be communicated to oncoming responders so that the initial tactical set up is in an area with the least amount of risk involved to responders. They should keep in mind not to only look at the scene from their perspective but from the adversaries as well. First responding efforts can be done quickly and should focus on:

  • Reading and understanding the environment
  • Reading and understanding the climate of the situation (What’s going on?)
  • What tactics will work in the current situation? (use insight and innovation)

· THIS IS TWO-WAY STREET “FRIENDLY & ADVERSARIAL” (both: Observe-Orient, Decide and Act)

Dynamic Encounters

Some have described and compared law enforcement encounters as either static or, dynamic. It’s my view that there is no such thing as a static law enforcement encounter. All encounters whether they progressively evolve over a longer period of time or erupt rapidly in a short period of time, without warning, circumstances surrounding law enforcement encounters are all dynamic. Time is moving forward, circumstances changing and the ability of responders to adapt to the ongoing circumstances is always critical.

In responding to dynamic encounters the protection of life is our priority, always. If the circumstances change and we are suddenly put into a spontaneous set of conditions where life is threatened then, dynamic responses are required. Action is now the critical component to seizing and maintaining the initiative. We must now set the tempo with fluid initiative driven action with our focus being to stop the ongoing threat. To do so we must know both the art and science of tactics and how to apply this knowledge to the unfolding conditions.

Tactical response and rescue teams

The team whether it consists of 1, 2, 3 or 4 men should be made up of tactically savvy people. Officers, who possess the 5% mindset, and know the tactical concepts to utilize and have been trained to an effective level, will be the most effective in using these tactics.

An understanding and ability to apply the tactical formations, such as the diamond formation, which is used to move to and from, or across danger areas or down hallways in schools and office buildings and consists of 4 people, the point man who focuses on the front, the right and left cover men, who focus on the right or the left, specific to their position and then the rear guard who focus on the rear. All communicate and engage threats in their area of responsibility.

The T-Y formation is commonly used with 3 members in the team. The T–Y formations are used for the same purpose as the diamond, rapid movement, good observation and ability to engage adversary. All formations offer their own strengths and weakness mostly centered on fields of fire and tactical movement and clearing rooms and intersections (T, L and cross) encountered in a building.

Two-man tactics are commonly used by law enforcement in active shootings. One officer and back up is the most prevalent tactical team in policing, although, movement of two men in a tactical way, is not consistently taught in law enforcement. This must change. In a two-man team, contact cover is done by both with each man being responsible for 180 degrees of their area. Again verbal and non-verbal communication is critical to ensure safety and effectiveness.

One-man entry[4] is a controversial entry technique and it’s only used as a last resort in engaging ongoing deadly action. It’s obvious to see the disadvantages in going it alone in an active shooting situation although when the deadly action is taking place on the part of the adversary and the lone officer is positioned at an advantage the need to enter and take action may be the only way to stop the threat. It’s imperative that the lone officer be capable in his tactical ability to engage alone.

The focus of these formations is to enhance rapid movement to the threat and maintain security through collective observations. Keeping in mind where, you may individually and/or collectively have to move once the threat is engaged. The focus of effort is movement in these formations to get you in a position to effectively stop the threat.

As the numbers in the tactical response team gets smaller the work load becomes much more difficult as there are fewer eyes on the surroundings. It is important to adjust your pace as the situation and your manpower dictates. Speed is often times gained by positioning verses an over exaggerated sense of urgency. Keep this in mind.

Room Clearing

Coordination and setup is an important consideration in room clearing and is facilitated by your team movement and proper approach and evaluation prior to the setup. Observation of doors, how they open and close? Is the door centered on the room or is it on the right or left side of the room? The answers to these questions dictate the technique you will use for entry. The goal is positioning to observe as much as you can before entering. In many instances before entering a room as much as 80% percent can be cleared visually before stepping off into a room. Utilize the various cornering techniques as the situation dictates. Team members are "Reading" each other, flexible and responsive to the dynamic of the situation. Superior situational awareness and timing is necessary!

Rescue teams

Rescue teams are teams used as a follow on to rescue downed and injured victims. The tactical response team’s focus is on the threat and they do not stop for victims. Injured victims are the rescue team’s responsibility. There are a couple of different ways these teams are utilized. Some advocate waiting to send in rescue teams once the threat has been stopped. Others advocate soon after the tactical response teams enter and clear a section rescue teams are sent in as a follow on unit who actively rescue while the adversary is still active. In short it comes down to training and preparation. Is your rescue team, tactically trained? If so using as a follow on to rescue the injured while response team is actively engaged is a viable option. If EMS is not tactically trained then rescue should wait till the threat is stopped.

Communication Considerations

When we respond to a critical incident it’s important to quickly establish you are on location and have command and control. This allows others responding to know someone is present on scene and that you can communicate the situation, identify danger or kill zones and set up the perimeter in an effort to isolate and contain the situation. You must quickly put an adaptable plan together and communicate this plan, as well. This communication puts everyone involved on the same page and helps to bring order to the chaos.

Now when talking about tactical communication it’s important to understand that this does not mean we are constantly on the radio relaying our every move. This “over talking” on the radio or elsewhere causes more chaos and disorder. Remember our goal is to bring order to disorder, not add to it… What communication does mean is that you calmly; clearly and concisely relay critical information in a timely manner. Your every thought does not need to be coming over the radio! I know it’s somewhat human nature under stress, to want everyone to know everything, but resist the urge and just communicate what’s critical. [5]

Responding units should stay off the radio and allow the person on scene and in the best position to relay critical information. Most communication at a active shooting, should be bottom-up. The frontline is in a position to make observations, direct others and take action. Command should trust their responding personnel and be on the listening end of communication and support frontline units. If trained and prepared properly the frontline will relay critical information up the chain so command can organize needed resources. Remember, climate is contagious; panic leads to more panic, as calm leads to more calm. Adapt to the situation; do not let the situation adapt to you.

Time for “Unconventional Tactics”

Law enforcement actions must evolve as well if we are to first detect and prevent these actions from taking place. When despite or efforts a violent ongoing deadly act does unfold we must be capable of dealing with it successfully by “penetrating our adversary’s moral-mental-physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system—as well as subvert, shatter, seize, or otherwise subdue those moral-mental-physical bastions, connections, or activities that he depends upon—in order to destroy internal harmony, produce paralysis, and collapse adversary’s will to resist.” [6] This requires insight, innovation and initiative and law enforcement using unconventional strategy and tactics as our adversaries have. Conflict is a clash between two complex adaptive systems. Who wins? He who adapts faster.

Our goal in responding to ongoing deadly action is to first and foremost to protect life. We do this through superior situational awareness which enhances or understanding of the environment and what's going on, so we can interact , adapt and position ourselves at the advantage, apply various tactics that work in stopping the threat and in protecting the innocent lives in jeopardy, which is the goal of our strategy.


[1] (Wikipedia, 2009)

[2] (Barchers, 2010)

[3] (Jr, 2008)

[4] (Borsch, 2008)

[5] (Jr., 2008)

[6] (Boyd, December 1986)