Spike in mass shootings creates demand for different police approach

The school in Newtown. The Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The movie theater in Aurora. America’s angst over shootings in public places is growing, and for good reason.

According to a study obtained by Yahoo News, rampages like the Washington Navy Yard and Los Angeles airport shootings have tripled in recent years.

The report, written by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University, will be published next week in the “FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,” a training publication for criminal justice professionals.

Researchers considered only active shootings in public settings where the primary motive appeared to be mass murder and at least one of the victims was unrelated to the suspect. Shootings during crimes such as bank robberies, drug deals, and gang violence were excluded.

“The rate at which these events occurred went from approximately one event every other month between 2000 and 2008 (5 per year) to more than one a month between 2009 and 2012 (almost 16 per year),” the researchers wrote. “Our tracking also indicates that this increased rate has continued into 2013.”

Other key findings from the 110 active-shooter attacks indentified by researchers:

Shootings most often take place at businesses (40 percent), followed by schools (29 percent), outdoors (19 percent) and other places (12 percent).

The median number of people shot is five. The median number killed is two.

Shooters are 94 percent male. The youngest was 13 and the oldest 88.

They often use handguns (59 percent), followed by rifles (26 percent), shotguns (8 percent) and unknown weapons (7 percent). In 33 percent of the cases, the gunman used multiple weapons. In 7 percent of the shootings the gunman wore body armor.

The average median time for police to respond to these incidents (where data was available) is three minutes.

Despite the hurried police response time, the study found that almost half of the active shootings are over before officers arrive.

“This points to the phenomenal speed with which these events occur,” the researchers wrote.

Changing police protocols

The FBI formed a team to study active shootings after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Among other initiatives, the agency has adopted an active-shooter training, which was developed at Texas State University after the 1999 Columbine High School killings in Colorado. The program’s core course prepares first responders to isolate, distract and stop active shooters as fast as possible.

According to the new study, patrol officers, who are usually the first on the scene, had to use force to stop the gunman in nearly a third of the attacks.

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“These events unfold very quickly,” said Katherine Schweit, a special agent who heads the FBI’s active shooter team. “We know that if they go to the threat, they save lives.”

The training is a major shift in police protocol. Since the 1970s, many departments conditioned street cops to contain the scene and wait for more skilled tactical officers to arrive.

“You were supposed to call the SWAT team to come handle the problem,” Terry Nichols, a former police officer now an assistant director at ALERRT, told Yahoo News.

That was the accepted strategy in 1999 when two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine. The shooters took only 16 minutes to kill 13 people and wound 21 others. But it took three hours and 14 minutes to find the gunmen, who had committed suicide. The SWAT team’s methodical response was later criticized as being too slow.

“Everything has changed. It’s now, get in there and go,” Nichols said. “Time is absolutely of the essence.”

The new approach proved vital on Dec. 13, 2013, when a heavily armed student carrying a shotgun, machete and three Molotov cocktails stormed into Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver. Police said the gunman, who was looking to harm his debate coach, shot a fellow student but then committed suicide when he realized a deputy assigned to the school and a security guard were closing in.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said the suspect stopped firing on others and turned his weapon on himself 80 seconds after entering the school.

"We believe that the response from the school resource officer and from the unarmed school security officer was absolutely critical to the fact we did not have additional injury and or death," Robinson told reporters.

In addition to tactical maneuvers for swiftly ending the threat, the ALERRT program also teaches police medical skills like how to apply a tourniquet.

“Law enforcement officers must be trained to provide point of injury care, quickly interface with EMS and fire and remove wounded victims to high levels of care,” Nichols said.

Sandy Hook ‘turned the tables’

The gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary committed suicide about a minute before officers reached him, but not before killing 20 first-graders and six adult staffers.

“It just turned the tables for everybody,” said Adam Madsen, a veteran police officer in Roy, Utah. “It opened everyone’s eyes when little kids were attacked.”

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Madsen said he knows of at least two dozen departments in northern Utah that are on the waitlist for the ALERRT training, which puts officers through lifelike scenarios with active shooters and mass casualties.

“Before Sandy Hook we had a waitlist of 25 to 30 agencies wanting the training,” Nichols said. “Now we run anywhere from 250 to 300. It’s been overwhelming.”

The course, which is offered to departments at no cost, is funded by grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the FBI and and the state of Texas. More than 100 FBI agents have also undergone advanced instruction so that they can help scale the course across the country.

“The faster and more we can do, the better,” Schweit said. “We feel it is a very urgent matter. Every day I get notices about potential active-shooter situations, it seems.”

What citizens can do

While many attackers commit suicide, the new study states potential victims stopped the attacker in 17 cases that ended before officers arrived.

“This tells us that citizens and bystanders have a very real and active role in stopping these events,” Nichols said. “If we can properly prepare and educate civilians, maybe we can get to where 90 percent are stopped by civilians long before the police arrive.”

The FBI has been busy promoting instructional videos and literature to educate the public on workplace and other scenarios.

“Run, hide and fight are your essential options in a shooting situation,” Schweit said. “The better prepared civilians are, the better they’ll be able to respond themselves.”

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