Approach or contain? Patrol response to armed school intruders

By Guest Police1 Columnist Rick Armellino

American law enforcement has proven to possess an amazing ability to adapt to changing times. Internal and external legal considerations, the pressures of public expectations, and the increasingly violent nature of society have challenged many police agencies that need to maintain officer safety standards while simultaneously delivering a high level of protection to the most vulnerable among us.

Nowhere is this balance of officer protection and public safety more evident than the law enforcement policies and procedures in place for approaching armed individuals in public areas, especially our schools. Have police administrators adapted policies which inadvertently provide the criminal excessive control of a volatile situation, putting children at additional risk? Unfortunately in many jurisdictions, the answer is yes.

Patrol first responders: hurry up and wait

The majority of law enforcement agencies have established internal policies that favor a slow, methodical response to armed intruders that rely upon multiple layers of command control, typically mandating the use of specially trained and equipped police personnel that take additional time to deploy and enter. The patrol first responder is generally required to simply establish a perimeter to prevent criminal escape and allow time for additional police assets to arrive.

Unless the sound or evidence of gunfire is detected, the patrol responder is not authorized to enter the school to obtain close physical contact and confront the armed intruder.

Command & control – Does this favor the criminals’ planned actions?

Rather than empower the first responding patrol officer with the authority to move towards the intruder, containment policy dictates that centralized command take control of the volatile situation. A dynamic and potentially deadly situation is now being passively managed from a remote location, using the patrol officer as the main conduit of information.

Unbelievably, the patrol first responder -- who many times is the only armed law enforcement asset that has a chance to swiftly end the situation before violence can hit a mass scale -- is delegated to gather information and listen for the sounds of gunfire. As most citizens realize, by the time gunfire is heard, innocents are being viciously attacked and the location of the shooter within the building is not known or contained.

During the Columbine High School massacre in Jefferson County, Colorado a mobile SWAT team unit from Denver PD was preparing to engage one of the perpetrators, who was observed firing on police responders from a location just inside an entranceway. As the SWAT officers were ready to initiate an aggressive response, Jefferson County Sheriff’s command declared the situation “high risk” which backed down the SWAT team by requiring the immediate establishment of a secure perimeter.

All officers, including the Denver SWAT members, were denied permission to engage and enter the building due to this standardized policy that mandated passive containment until an appropriate response plan was established.

When police administrators are asked to justify a policy that trains and authorizes their patrol first responders to establish a perimeter rather than make contact with an armed intruder, officer safety and the potential of lawsuits are the most common reasons stated. Any casualties occurring during patrol officers’ aggressive actions may provide grounds for litigation.

However, failure to allow first responders the authority to gain access to the schools’ interior grants an armed criminal the complete control of the environment, prolonging the innocents’ exposure to potential deadly violence.

Is this acceptable? Not to most of the public, who expect a reasonably rapid response to an armed intruder inside a school or other public building.

A legal “green light” to provide swift protection

A review of the inevitable litigation that followed the Columbine High School massacre revealed that law enforcement is given a legal “green light” to aggressively approach armed individuals. Unless police conduct themselves in a malicious, grossly negligent, outrageous or extreme manner during a rescue attempt, the legal system supports the legitimate efforts of patrol officers to prevent violence and injury to the citizens they are sworn to protect.

In reviewing samples of lawsuit dispositions following emergency response to armed individuals, law enforcement agencies are granted a tremendous amount of operational discretion. The fear of potential litigation should not be a factor in setting policy that reduces the speed, aggressiveness or availability of patrol response.

The creation of policy that allows for initial and recurrent training, including the supply of portable ballistic protective equipment, is necessary if an agency desires to deliver the highest level of public safety to children attending school. The legal system favors a quick and forceful response to potential school violence.

Public perception versus cold reality

Ask ten average citizens at random the following question;

An armed individual is reported to have walked into an elementary school in our community. What action would you expect the first responding police officer to do upon arrival at the school? You already know the answer. Ten out of ten will respond in a similar message to please …“Immediately respond and stop the intruder from hurting anyone”.

The reality is that most American law enforcement patrol officers are instructed to set up a perimeter and will not enter the building until either gunfire is heard, or tactical back-up arrives, whichever comes first. Common sense would dictate that the longer an armed individual is allowed unrestricted control of the environment, the greater the likelihood exists for a bloody ending.

Armed individuals and active shooters: Is there really a difference?

Since the massacre at Columbine, most law enforcement agencies that subscribe to the containment-and-response approach handle “armed individuals” differently than “active shooters.” The biggest change in patrol responder policy following Columbine was that once a shooter goes active, law enforcement responders, including patrol officers, are ethically required to make entry to neutralize the predator(s). Approaching armed individuals prior to them becoming active may be seen as a prudent and reasonable response to the general public, but this procedure is considered extremely high-risk by law enforcement.

There is a small, but growing trend found in progressive departments towards treating all armed individuals in close proximity to innocent citizens as active shooters, whether or not they have pulled the trigger. Since it takes a fraction of a second and a few centimeters to pull a trigger, the public considers an armed individual “active” -- and so should the modern police agency administrator. Modern “Immediate Action Rapid Deployment” (IARD) tactics for patrol officers should be considered for use before the predator is allowed to go active.

Planned mass murder is the goal

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