5 Phases of the "Active Shooter"
- By Lt. Dan Marcou (ret.),
LaCrosse (WI) PD
yourself sitting in a restaurant one morning. You look up from
your paper and the waitress says, “Two eggs over
easy, wheat toast, hash browns and sausage. Will there be anything
You begin to respond, “No thank…” but
before you can finish, there is a loud crash and your table
over by the front end of a truck that has crashed through the
Before your brain can process what has just happened, a man
armed with a semi-auto handgun steps calmly from the truck and
begins deliberately shooting patrons. You instinctively draw
your off-duty Glock 26. You can tell the shooter has tunnel vision
and is so focused on the screaming patrons in his sights that
he has not noticed you acquiring a sight picture directly in
the middle of his right ear.
Without a word or conscious thought you
fire. The round enters the suspect’s head through his
ear and the he slumps to the floor lifeless.
Thank God you were there. Thank God you were armed.
This is exactly what happened in a restaurant
in Killeen, Texas…except there was no officer in a position to end the killing spree of
real-life shooter George Henard. In Killeen, 23 innocent citizens
were killed and 24 were wounded.
Cases like this have become so common that
law enforcement has coined the term “Active Shooter” while
coming to the realization that waiting for a SWAT team to respond
a scene would cost lives. The Active Shooter requires an immediate,
effective and efficient act of courage. This is one time when
a police officer who is on-duty or off needs to ride to the sound
of gunfire and end the threat with a well placed bullet as soon
The list of cities that have been struck
by the Active Shooter phenomenon is long, including Austin,
TX; Edmond, OK; Moss Lake,
WA; Littleton, CO; Jonesboro, AR; Oak Creek, WI, Red Lake, MN—and
now Blacksburg, VA on the campus of Virginia Tech University...the
bloodiest Active Shooter incident in history to date.
Police agencies nationwide are designing training programs to
address the possibility that they might face similar threats
in their jurisdictions. The ultimate goal of these programs is
to eliminate and minimize casualties in the event their officers
are met with this challenge.
Police departments do not have to wait until
bullets are flying and people are dying to stop the Active
Shooter. Officers can
step between the shooter and his intended victim long before
the screaming and the bleeding. An arrest can be made in one
of the earlier stages of the Active Shooter’s development.
There are five phases of the Active Shooter phenomenon:
1. Fantasy Stage
During this stage the shooter pictures himself doing the shooting.
He fantasizes about the headlines he will receive. He fantasizes
about the news coverage. He might draw pictures of the event
and make Web site postings. Would-be Active Shooters in the Fantasy
Stage will often discuss their desires with friends and foes
alike. If news of these fantasies is passed on to law enforcement,
police intervention can take place prior to the suspect acting
on them. In this case there will be zero casualties.
2. Planning Stage
In this stage the suspect is deciding on
the "who, what,
when, where and how" of his day of infamy. He will often
put his plans down in writing. He will quite often discuss his
plans with others. In timing his move, he might decide to attack
on a day the school’s liaison officer will be in court.
He will plan the time and location to insure the most victims,
or in some cases to target specific victims.
He will determine the weapons he will need and where he will
get them. He will decide how to travel to the target area and
how to dress to conceal his weapons without arousing suspicion.
If the police are tipped at this time, once again intervention
can be made prior to any rounds being fired, keeping the death
toll at zero.
3. Preparation Stage
During this stage the suspect may be obtaining
gun powder for his improvised explosive devices. He might break
house to steal some weapons and ammunition for the event. He
might pre-position weapons and explosives for the assault. Active
Shooters have been known to call friends and tell them not to
go to school or work on the scheduled day of the attack in an
effort to keep them out of the line of fire.
If one of these friends calls the police about their concerns,
officers have an opportunity to intervene before the event.
4. Approach Stage
The closer to the event, the more dangerous it will be for any
officer taking action. The Approach Stage is a very dangerous
stage. The suspect has made his plans and decided to act. He
will be walking, driving, or riding toward his intended target,
armed with his tools of death.
Contact with the soon-to-be Active Shooter
could come in the form of a citizen call, a traffic stop or
a “Terry Stop.” A
thorough investigation can still lead to an arrest of the suspect
before he brings down a multitude of victims in a needless shooting
Make no mistake about it, the officer making contact with the
suspect during this stage is in danger, but as long as he or
she keeps an open mind on every single street contact, they can
stay safe. There is a fine line between having your name on an
award and your name on a wall. The difference is often being
prepared, being aware and being highly skilled. This contact,
if approached in a trained, tactically sound manner, could become
a life-saver, a career-maker, and end in zero casualties.
5. Implementation Stage
Once the shooter opens fire, immediate action
needs to be taken. Initial responding officers need to rapidly
proceed to the suspect
and stop the threat. The Active Shooter will continue to kill
until he runs out of victims or ammunition. This suspect is unique,
because he is fully dedicated to going for the “top score,” which
is measured in number of kills. The more, the better.
The sooner an on- or off-duty officer intervenes with an effective,
efficient act of courage, the fewer funerals. In past incidents,
Active Shooters have been thwarted by police officers, security
guards, school teachers, (one principal recently died successfully
stopping an active shooter in a Wisconsin school), and in one
case a high school football captain.
Responding officers will be able to utilize these following
factors to their advantage:
- An honorable gunfighter is needed to stop the
- A police officer is a trained, honorable gun fighter.
- The Active Shooter will be highly focused on the killing.
- The scene will be loud and chaotic.
- An officer can use the chaos as cover to move quietly to
a position of advantage.
- Terrified victims will be able to direct you to the
- The sound of the shooting will also help direct you
to the shooter.
- Upon arriving, if it is an Active Shooting in Progress
you do not have to verbalize if it endangers
yourself and others.
Take the shot.
- If you manage to contain the subject in a non-violent
pose, initiate a classic SWAT response.
A single officer responding to an Active Shooter call must realize
that he or she can minimize casualties by the successful actions
they take, but he may not be able to completely prevent all loss
of innocent life. That officer must remember that the shooter--not
the officer--is ultimately responsible for those deaths. This
is a critical point to understand and believe in order to better
insure emotional recovery after a traumatic event like this.
Upon arriving at the scene there will be little
time for thought so the preparation should be made in advance.
The officer has
to decide in a moment whether to contain and wait for additional
units or to take immediate action, if innocents are dying with
You may have to risk your life. This is a dire
situation and we may take casualties.
Remember “long guns for long halls.” Put
superior fire power into your hands and radio as much information
as you move. Making an entry with four is better than three.
Making an entry with three is better than two. Making an entry
with one is better than nothing.
Do not throw your life away.
Breathe. Think and advance using the chaos as your diversion.
You may have
to pass areas that
have not been cleared. You may have to ignore fleeing witnesses
who scream, “He has an AK-47! He’s killing people!
He’s killing people! He’s in the office right now!”
Gather as many facts as you can on the move. You may have to
move right by injured and deceased victims without stopping to
help. You must attempt to move to a position of advantage that
affords you a field of vision and cover as well as a clear shot
at the suspect as quickly as possible. Attempt to do this without
alerting the suspect of your presence.
Quickly assess the suspect’s actions
and if he is in the process of shooting and killing then do
not advise, warn, or
request. Take the shot! Make the shot! Break up your tunnel vision
and look for additional threats. Communicate your actions, the
situation and location. Reload during the lull. This should be
done all while watching the downed suspect and looking for accomplices.
Secure the suspect. Assess his condition.
As you read this, if you carry off-duty, take the time to ask
Do I have a weapon I have trained with?
Do I have a way to identify myself as a police officer?
Do I have a way to secure a suspect I have shot or arrested off-duty?
Do I have a way to communicate (cell phone)?
Do I have reload capability?
Have I participated in hands-on “Active Shooter Response” training?
If you answered no to any of these questions you need to take
some kind of additional action so you can answer yes.
If you do not carry off-duty, take the time to ask the following:
Should I carry off-duty in today’s
post 9-11 world?
If someone was shooting in my child’s school, would
I take action armed or not?
If I was about to be shot by an Active Shooter, would I refuse to go quietly
into the night?
If you answered yes to any of these questions
you need to consider carrying a weapon off-duty. Your first
step should be to check
your department’s policy and the laws in your area.
Due to recent changes in Federal law it is much easier for a
sworn police officer to carry a concealed weapon out of their
jurisdiction when off-duty. New Federal law has also been enacted
to allow for retired police officers to carry concealed weapons
if they are trained and have proper identification and authorization
from their agencies.
The Active Shooter is a very real challenge of our time. The
possibility exists that any one of you reading this might be
faced with this challenge in your lives. It matters not if you
are a patrol officer, chief, sheriff, detective, school liaison
officer, DARE officer, or whether you are on- or off-duty. They
might be a threat to you, your family, and the people you are
sworn to protect.
When you least expect it you may have to “ride to the
sound of gunfire. ” Are you prepared?
About the Author:
Lt. Dan Marcou arrested his last Felon on November 1, 2006. He retired
after 32 years 11 months and six days of Law Enforcement Service. He was
highly decorated member of the La Crosse Wisconsin Police Department. He
and Officer Robert Michalski were named SWAT Officers of the year for their
initial response to an Active Shooter, wearing a vest, armed with a handgun
and an Uzi sub-machine gun. The killer had shot five people and sprayed
the top floor of an occupied hotel. No one died after Marcou and Michalski
arrived. The suspect is in prison serving two life sentences. His last intended
victim, who survived was a veteran of the War in Iraq. “Lt. Dan” is
currently a very active Police Trainer.