Run Hide Fight

American police departments, teachers, and civilians are turning to private training organizations that specialize in military combat techniques, as they prepare for the possibility of active shooter attack. Nearly 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting, the annual rate of active shooter attacks in the United States has tripled, with mass shootings in Las Vegas, Parkland, Florida, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, claiming more victims than ever before.

Published with: NBC Left Field, The Washington Post, WIRED, The Guardian, Newsweek, TOPIC, Columbia Journalism Review, Harper’s. Supported by: The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,

 
 

"Police! We're coming in!"

Two cops yank open a warehouse door and rush inside, pistols drawn, using flashlights to peer through the gloom.

The officers spot a man with an assault rifle, surrounded by the slumped shapes of bleeding hostages. They aim. They fire. Gunshots echo off the bare walls. The police hit the man in the torso. Radios then crackle as the officers count casualties and request backup, before pushing farther into the building. Outside, police, firefighters and medics wait for the call to enter. They want to make sure it's safe.

Fortunately for the officers and medics on the scene, this was not a real attack. It was a training exercise on the outskirts of San Marcos, Texas. The building belongs to Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT), a school that trains law enforcement and ordinary people how to stop an active shooter. Supported with federal funding, the San Marcos Police Department and Texas State University, ALERRT is the largest school of its kind. Since its founding in 2002, the organization has trained more than 105,000 police officers and 85,000 civilians from across America.

Over the past five years, ALERRT and companies like it have seen enrollment balloon. And with good reason. The number of active shootings not related to drug or gang activity has more than tripled, from an average of 6.4 per year between 2000 and 2007 to an average of 20 per year in 2014 and 2015, according to the FBI. Data isn't available for all of 2016, but in June of that year, Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida—the worst act of terror on American soil since 9/11 and the highest number of people killed in an active shooting in the U.S.. This year, there have already been several high-profile incidents. In mid June, for instance, a gunman attacked a congressional Republican baseball practice in Virginia, leaving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, in critical condition.

Active shooter response programs—some are run by private gun companies, others by local police departments—have been around for decades. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the Obama administration decided to pump federal money into course development and data analysis. In the years since, as assailants attacked the Washington Naval Yards in 2013 and a party in San Bernardino, California in 2015, the training programs improved, as many pioneered new communication techniques and ways to improve response times. The only problem: many of them didn't share these innovations.

But over the past year and a half, thanks to an FBI endorsement, American law enforcement has adopted ALERRT's curriculum as the common training system for medics, law enforcement and ordinary people. It's given first responders a common language to use during a deadly attack—and a data-driven approach to keeping people safe during an assault. An important part of the protocol: Asking civilians to keep their guns holstered—a controversial request, but one that experts say may save lives.

 ***

Two years ago, when Police Chief Jeff Walters and his officers responded to a shooting at a high school in West Virginia, he found the campus on lockdown. Using the keys his department had been issued for emergencies, he and his colleagues moved slowly through classrooms searching for a gunman and his 29 hostages.

The shooter's aim was to kill two students who happened to be absent that day. When he couldn't find them, he took other students hostage. Using what they'd learned in ALERRT's training courses, Walters and officers negotiated with the shooter to release some of the hostages before anyone was hurt. Without the training, Walters says, they would have waited for backup from a special reaction team, a police outfit that took two and a half hours to arrive at the scene. "I believe he would have killed students or killed himself," says Walters, "He would have boiled over."

Delays like the one Walters described used to be commonplace: police responding to an active shooter would wait for SWAT to arrive before they'd enter the building, by which time, the attacker had usually escaped or committed suicide. That changed after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the first major attack that led to better training and faster responses, says Pete Blair, ALERRT's executive director. That attack forced police to realize how fast their response needed to be.

Before Columbine, law enforcement and emergency responders worked independently, often undercutting each other's actions. Now, emergency services in most cities monitor each other's radio channels to coordinate how they respond. In the absence of standard training though, many of the insights gained at Columbine weren't passed on to law enforcement.

At the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, many of the casualties didn't get the medical help they needed. Most of the 70 injured victims had to be taken to the hospital in police vehicles because fire trucks had blocked ambulance access. Ideally, medics begin treating casualties en route to the hospital and radio ahead to explain a patient's condition, saving time for doctors awaiting their arrival. But that didn't happen and surgeons began operating on less critically injured patients.

The FBI also knew it had a problem. There were too many active shooter incidents and the law enforcement response wasn't adequate. Impressed by ALERRT's tactical training program in 2012, the bureau offered the group a $28 million grant of federal funds to improve their training by collating all available data from every active shooter incident in the country over the last 17 years.

The goal: to train enough first responders so they know exactly how to work together and save as many lives as possible. ALERRT has trained 300 FBI agents, among other law enforcement and emergency medical and fire personnel—from New York to Mississippi—all free of charge.

To avoid strategic mistakes, ALERRT asks its students to practice verbal and radio communication while training. Some of it is common sense—encouraging police and fire departments to coordinate their movements face-to-face, on the scene. But other ALERRT strategies come out of the data: Active shooter schools used to train police to search for a second shooter after the first was found. But ALERRT discovered that only two percent of incidents include an additional attacker—making it more critical to focus on tending to victims.

As Hunter Martaindale, ALERRT's director of research puts it: "We're shifting some of our training to get victims the medical care they need to survive."

When it comes to saving lives, police training can only go so far. Civilians are almost always the first to respond to an active shooting. Of the roughly 100,000 officers ALERRT has trained, only two have since been in a position to make a first response to an attack, and according to the FBI, 70 percent of active shooter incidents finish inside five minutes—often before the police arrive. In these scenarios, teachers, students or employees are on their own.

How should they respond? In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security developed a code for civilians facing active shooters, broadly endorsed by the FBI and law enforcement, called Run, Hide, Fight. Through an informational pamphlet and five-minute-video, the framework suggests hiding or throwing objects at the attacker. These programs, widely taught in schools, encourage teachers to simulate active shooter incidents, and instruct students to hide in classrooms, with the doors locked and the lights off.

ALERRT offers similar advice, and doesn't promote the use of firearms; fighting back, the group says, should be a last resort, because the danger posed by a physical fight is far greater than attempting to hide or escape. "But if you're barricaded in the room," says FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs, "and the guy's coming in, it's fight or die."

***

With rhythmic concentration Scott Warren pushes the shiny brass cylinders of 9mm bullets into the spare magazine of his Smith & Wesson pistol. Bent over utilitarian folding tables dotted around the small wooden hut, a dozen others are doing the same, on a break from their last gun drill. Buried deep in dusty North Texas ranchland this gun defense class, run by Strategic Weapons Academy of Texas, is designed for educational staff. Like Scott, everyone here is a Dallas-area school teacher. “We're in the trenches," says Warren, "if something happens we're sitting ducks."

Gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association say arming civilians would help thwart active shooters, and they've supported laws allowing civilians to carrying firearms in public. At least 10 states in America now allow school staff access to firearms in an arrangement labeled the School Marshal Program. The rules require marshals to complete firearms training, pass psychological tests, and keep weapons in lock boxes or vehicles. In Texas, though, more than 200 schools take things further, implementing the Guardian Plan which allows staff to carry guns under a shirt or in an ankle holster. The scheme requires no federal oversight; the only rules are that guardians must have a valid license-to-carry gun permit and do their best to remain anonymous.

The Guardian Plan and Marshal Program have grown in popularity among the boards of rural schools, some of which are up to 30 minutes away from the protection of law enforcement, and who also lack the funds to hire dedicated security staff - around $50,000 per year.

Dressed in khaki shorts, combat belt, and heavy green ear defenders, Tim Bulot grabs his pistol out of its holster, fires, and turns to instruct a line of civilian trainees. He launched Strategic Weapons Academy of Texas in 1998, offering gun classes to police - Defensive Pistol, Explosives and Breaching, and Patrol Rifle. An active SWAT sergeant with 35-years-experience, including a decade-long stint working an anti-kidnap unit in Columbia, Bulot, and trainers like him are creating firearms and combat courses specifically for teachers and students, as they ready for a return to campus in the fall semester.

“In a lot of these shooting situations there’ve been reports of teachers putting themselves between the threat and the students,” says Bulot, “so we took that natural movement of wanting to protect the children and added a means of defense – the firearm.”

 After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida which killed 17 students, President Trump renewed his encouragement for America’s schools to arm their teachers. And in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting where a 17-year-old attacker opened fire in an art class, killing 10 students, Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, released gun proposals that suggested more firearms for school staff.

The trend had been growing in popularity since 2007, when David Thweatt, superintendent of Harrold Independent School District near Lubbock, Texas, began quietly encouraging his teachers to keep handguns in the classroom. In 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, Thweatt wrote the Guardian Plan, which legalized armed teachers on school campuses. In the same year the School Marshal Program was born, written by Dallas lawyer and senator Jason Villalba.

“Our local sheriff is all for it, but everyone has a different idea when it comes to being prepared,” says Thweatt, “I have never had a flat tire, but I still carry a spare.”

Back on the shooting range, Scott Warren marks his hits on a cardboard target, noticing the groupings of circular punctures around the head and torso. In October 2017, his daughter was on campus at Texas Tech in Lubbock, when a student opened fire toward college police, killing one. "We were on the phone with her for two or three hours,” says Warren, “from a parent's perspective that's a scary place to be." Teachers like Scott share similar motivation – a desire to protect the children within their care, and a frustration at the lack of other alternatives for them. For the moment handguns represent an affordable and potentially effective solution. “We all have kids in schools - I don’t know what the answer is,” says Bulot, “I mean the intersection between mental illness and firearms - it needs to be addressed.”

***

But without a regulated curriculum, and with guns laws differing from state to state, law enforcement experts question the safety of such courses. The relative lack of training among armed civilians—and their inability to communicate over police systems about where they are shooting, allowing the authorities to avoid their fire—could endanger police as they arrive at the scene. With attackers and armed civilians both wearing regular clothes, the authorities could also have trouble identifying the suspects. "When we show up to an active shooter situation, anyone who's not in uniform with a gun is considered a threat," says Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.

The data on civilians using guns to take down active shooters is inconclusive. "We really don't have data that supports one way or the other about armed civilians," says Katherine Schweit, the head of the bureau's violence prevention section. That is partly due to how infrequently armed civilians have been involved in large-scale shootings: In the data the FBI collected from 2000 to 2013, she says, "I think there's only one incidence or two, where we've had a civilian engaged in an incident."

Another reason for the lack of data: Comparing lives saved with different approaches "is an incredibly complex thing to try to measure" says Martaindale, ALERRT's director of research. "Each of the active shooter events are so different," there's no way to create a randomized controlled trial, science's fairest benchmark, to compare shootings.

Back at that warehouse in Texas, a team of police and medics are ready to evacuate casualties. They shuffle toward the building entrance, knees bent, heads down.

Suddenly an air-horn sounds, and the trainees lower their weapons. Sliding out of their body armor, the group disbands in trucks that crawl back toward town, and the comfort of cold beer.

They can relax—for now.