Law enforcement active shooter response policy

An active shooter policy helps you protect your community, save lives, and explain exactly who's responsible for what role.

September 1, 2021

Article highlights

Active shooter situations are becoming a harsh reality these days, and we live with the question of "when, not if" the next one will happen. As a result, many cities and towns have a law enforcement active shooter response policy in place, detailing what should happen during the next active shooter situation at any school, workplace, worship center, mall, or other public location.

While the precise definition of a mass shooting varies, the general principle is the same – it involves four or more people being shot or killed. The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as one where four or more people, excluding the shooter(s), are killed. The Congressional Research Service limits it to four or more people killed. And the Mass Shooting Tracker's definition is more expansive, including four or more people shot, including the shooter.

In 2021, there were 327 mass shootings by the end of June, with 360 people killed and 1,343 people wounded. In 2020, there were 615 mass shootings with 521 killed and 2,541 wounded, which is especially high considering the pandemic. In 2019, there were 441 mass shootings with 475 killed.

An active shooter response has varied over the years. According to Police Chief Magazine, early law enforcement active shooter response policies suggested waiting for four or five officers to arrive and enter the building together. But they found that it still took too long for that many officers to assemble, so departments began to recommend that one or two officers would be enough to enter a building and deal with the shooter or shooters

The first officer on scene was given a great deal of decision-making power, to include the decision of when and where to go in. While four or five officers remained the “ideal” number in a team, the number could be smaller based on the situation at hand and the officers’ training and abilities. Statistics tended to show that the sooner officers arrived on scene, the sooner the incident ended, often with the suspect’s life ended by his or her own hands. — Police Chief Magazine

An active shooter response policy will spell out the protocols for assessing a threat and immediately responding to the situation as a way to limit the loss of life and injury. In the rest of this article, we'll discuss why it's important to have a response policy, what goes into one, and how you can write one for your department.

Importance of an active shooter response policy

The quote above from Police Chief Magazine demonstrates why an active shooter policy became important. How many officers should enter a building? Who is in charge? How do you decide which roles are most important? How do you assess a situation and what should be done as more officers and other first responders arrive?

A law enforcement active shooter policy will answer all of these questions and should take you step-by-step, through the entire response scenario, beginning with the first 911 call all the way through the after-action report debriefing and additional training.

We spoke with Nicholas Haupt – Chief Consultant of BlueIQ, a consulting company that works with law enforcement organizations to help them achieve professional excellence – about how and why law enforcement agencies should create an active shooter response policy.

"You need to have your policy developed ahead of time because when you're in a situation, you don't have time to figure out what your deployment and dispatching strategies will be," said Haupt. "The more you can have outlined in your policy, the better."

If you can imagine 20, 50, or even 100 officers all responding from different districts, cities, counties, states, etc., you can understand why there needs to be a consistent law enforcement active shooter response policy.

Haupt said, "An active shooter policy should be formatted in a chronological response, and follow the steps of how it should play out, starting with 911 dispatch getting the call and what they do, to who it's handed off to, how the first officer on the scene should respond, and so on. There should be detailed information about how to search for the subject, what to do for injured people, establishing a perimeter, and even staging other officers and fire and rescue personnel."

What your active shooter response policy should include

Every law enforcement active shooter response policy should have roughly the same elements, regardless of the location of the city. Of course, there will be differences based on location, size of the city, size of the force, and so on. But they should all contain these elements. 

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has a model active shooter response policy available to "provide concrete guidance and directives by describing in sequential format the manner in which actions, tasks, and operations are to be performed."

"This isn't just your 200-word policy, this will be many pages and steps," said Haupt. "It may end up serving as your checklist in a lot of ways in how field and admin personnel handle the incident."

Based on the IACP's model policy, the major steps in your new policy should include:

  1. Situational Assessment: Based on available information, officers are dispatched to the scene and they verify that an active shooter situation exists. The first arriving officers advise communications and request resources. They also determine whether to take immediate action alone or with another officer or wait until additional officers arrive.
  2. Individual Officer Intervention: If an individual officer is present, even if off duty, they may determine that immediate action is necessary. The officers shall also communicate that an active shooter situation exists with as much detail as possible. There are also specific actions to take if an officer is armed or unarmed, such as facilitating evacuation.
  3. Contact Officer or Team Response. The contact officer/team's mission is to stop the threat, even if it seems to have ended. Normally, only one officer or team shall be deployed, but additional officers or teams may be deployed at the direction of the Incident Commander. The contact officer or team will provide clear communication for progress, victims, suspect's description, and the location of booby traps or explosives. This should also include directions on how to employ a tactical advantage and locate the suspect
  4. Rescue Task Force (RTF): Once the contact officer/team is deployed, and other officers and resources arrive at the scene, RTFs will provide trauma care and evacuate victims. The policy should also state how RTFs should be organized and deployed, as well as prepared to respond to hostile action, including searching wounded people for weapons. The policy should also state how long the RTF should operate.
  5. Unified Command: This part of the policy states how soon unified incident command (IC) should be established, and what its roles are during the incident. It should also spell out what actions the IC should ensure are completed, including an inner perimeter, outer perimeter, and staging area for communications. They can also assign additional tactical teams to contain the location and assist RTFs, or even relieve the contact officer and locate the suspect(s).
  6. Community Notification: This part of the policy covers how the public information officer (PIO) shall ensure that appropriate information is distributed, including shelter in place warnings for nearby locations, alerts to avoid the area, and directions for citizens and parents who visit the scene.
  7. Debriefing: As soon as is reasonable, the agency shall debrief all essential personnel involved in the incident, identify areas of improvement, and determine whether further changes in protocols, policy, or training are needed. 
  8. Training; How the agency provides training to all personnel, including simulation exercises conducted in schools and other appropriate locations, with cooperating first response agencies.

How to develop your active shooter response policy

There are some great templates you can use for developing your active shooter response policy, like the one from the IACP. There is also a thorough list of resources from the FBI, including a breakdown of past active shooter incidents, heat maps of past incidents, and quick reference guides. 

"There are a lot of resources available, a lot of third-parties with nationally accepted practices, like IACP and SWAT organizations that deal with deployments for active shooters," said Haupt. "Also look at what neighboring agencies are doing. This could be important for continuity of operations, especially if you provide aid or want to accept aid from other neighboring agencies."

Developing an active shooter response policy is like writing any other policy. There are a few basic steps to follow, and it takes time to develop, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you. Here are the steps to follow to create that policy in the first place.

  • Develop a policy charter or mandate. First, get buy-in from top leadership. They should already be aware of how important this is, but if not, educate them on the statistics and number of incidents around the country.
  • Form a policy management team. Many hands make light work, and many eyes find areas for improvement. Be sure to get input from the subject matter experts in the department and in other departments around the area. If necessary, work with outside consultants who have experience in writing these policies. Make sure someone is the owner of the process, to ensure everything is done properly.
  • Select a technology to manage the process. It's helpful to use policy management software that gives you version control, lets you collaborate with policy management team members, and even share it with upper management for approval and feedback.
  • Write your initial draft. Policy writing is not a one-and-done effort. There will be revisions and changes, even after you call it finished. In the meantime, you'll get feedback from different people, as well as new developments in active shooter response best practices, and you'll need to make updates based on what you learn. Make everything simple, clear, and easy to understand. Remove all jargon and simplify the language.
  • Send the draft out for review. Time to bring back the experts. Send them the initial draft and ask for feedback. Ask experts from other agencies, but watch out for the experts' need to be thorough and complete versus the policy's need for clarity and simplicity. (Note: You can also streamline the review and approval process with policy management software that has audit trail and version control features.)
  • Create a training plan. Reading a new policy is not the same as understanding it. Create different training scenarios and methods, including watching videos, hearing lectures, and running drills in different facilities with cooperation from different first responder agencies.
  • Revise the policy as needed. As other agencies face real-life active shooter situations, or there are new best practices, revise your policy and make sure new versions are distributed. Ensure your staff is accessing the latest version of your policies by implementing policy management software with version control and mobile functionality. These features equip your officers to access current information from any device, at any time.

Final thoughts

As we said in the beginning, an active shooter incident is a question of "when, not if" it will happen, so it's important that there is a law enforcement active shooter response policy at every level, from the smallest police district to the largest state police agency.

An active shooter policy will outline the requirements for the department's response, including individual roles, determining who's in charge, and assigning roles to incoming officers as the incident unfolds.

Every policy should include important steps like situational assessment, establishing the contact officer or team, the role of the rescue task force, establishment of unified command, and how the community should be notified and managed.

And every new policy should be written with buy-in from top leadership, by a team, with the latest in policy management writing practices and software, and reviewed and approved by subject matter experts before it's finalized.

An active shooter response policy is just one of the 12 crucial law enforcement policies every agency needs to protect its community, minimize liability risks, and protect its reputation.

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