Law Enforcement Response

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"If you are not scared, you are nuts. You have to overcome the fear to act, and you cannot freeze." — Police interview participant

Law enforcement responders can best resolve incidents by intentionally and immediately addressing the threat and focusing on incapacitating the shooter(s). As noted by ALERRT, the focus must be to "stop the killing" so that responders can "stop the dying." This is a shift from historical responses; law enforcement used to stage a response team and position it for an optimal response. We have learned from Columbine and events that have occurred since that this response prolongs incidents and often leads to greater numbers of fatalities.

According to our case analysis, there is a risk of law enforcement fatalities when responding to a mass shooting, but that risk has been small. From 1995 to 2020, we identified five events in which a responding officer was killed by a shooter, yielding five total officer deaths.

Our research also documented whether the subject (i.e., the shooter) died during the attack and the cause of death. We found that law enforcement plays a significant role in the subject's death (see the figure below).

Subject Outcome or Cause of Death

NOTE: The cases shown in this figure exclude attacks that we categorized as "Foiled." For more information about the data analyzed in this tool, please contact the research team.

Design by Alyson Youngblood/RAND

Self-Inflicted: 72

NA-Subject did not Die: 139

Killed by LE: 46

Killed by Bystander: 7

In 106 incidents, the subject was apprehended on the scene, and in 65 incidents, the subject was apprehended after fleeing.

Training and preparation are key to responding to mass attack events. We identified the following key points for law enforcement response.

From Our Expert Interviews

  • Identify response roles for each individual and have them prepare "mental maps" on how to respond. Everyone cannot be expected to respond immediately and effectively during an incident; preparation gives individuals a needed structure on which to rely.
  • Train individuals to act because there may not be time to think. A public safety response should be rehearsed and reinforced by training.
  • Stop the action, render aid, and get people to the hospital. These are the priorities for law enforcement responding to the scene.
  • Overcome egos that come to the fore in operations. Operational control must be viewed holistically and through refined operational processes. Some agencies have found that co-locating offices or joint units facilitates collaboration.

From the Literature

  • Work to maintain distance and cover from a potential shooter (see, e.g., Blair et al., 2011).
  • Mentally rehearse the response for specific buildings that are at high risk (notably, buildings matching the "constrained labyrinth" type), egress routes, and people with whom to work so that there will be muscle memory in the field.
  • Train on moving and firing simultaneously to avoid frontally charging attackers (Sandel, Martaindale, and Blair, 2021).

Schools and School Resource Officers

School Resource Officers (SROs) play a special and critical role in responding to a mass attack. Through interviews, we found that SROs often have a policy to get all potential victims to a safe place. At the same time, they must follow departmental policy on incident command. School security and leadership can participate in exercises to learn how law enforcement deploys and how to incorporate the use of school resources, such as security cameras.

A Key Resource for Law Enforcement Response

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has partnered with Texas State University on the ALERRT program to develop and refine a two-day training that includes an advanced train-the-trainer component (ALERRT, undated c). State and local law enforcement can request this training for about 24 to 30 participants. There is no cost to participating agencies; the host just needs to provide a venue. There are Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events and Solo Officer Rapid Deployment options (ALERRT, undated b; ALERRT, undated e). Although ALERRT is law enforcement–centric, it is endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters because it incorporates joint response responsibilities.

Next Page in the Mitigate Phase

Medical Response