Responding to chaos

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

Within a few hours of the news about the Aurora shooting, friends began to ask me how police respond to such incidents.

It’s too easy to describe these scenes as chaotic. They are worse than that. Multiple victims will be found in multiple places. There will be panic. Witnesses and bystanders will become obstacles to your rescue efforts. The suspect might be among those fleeing. Early information will be unreliable, conflicting or completely false. Responding officers will misinterpret what they see and report equally unreliable and conflicting information. Inadvertently parked emergency vehicles will become part of the problem. There will be at least one non-shooting-related medical emergency. If the incident is at night and there is a helicopter above you, its spotlight will create an eerie, almost surreal panorama of dancing lights and shadows as it moves overhead.

It will be noisy – really noisy. The sirens and rotor wash from the helicopter will drown out your conversation. The radio will be screaming at you, as will many of the people standing nearby.

The first responders will be the basic patrol force currently on duty. There will be no time to stand around and wait for SWAT teams. On-scene personnel will need to act immediately. A field sergeant may or may not respond for some time. It may just be a single patrol officer who steps up and takes charge.

Yet order must be established, and certain things must be done. The command and control of responding officers must be established. The location must be contained and secured. Reliable witnesses who can identify the suspect must be located. Containment teams and chase units must be readied in case the suspect attempts to flee. An assault plan and assault teams must be prepared. The suspect needs to be located and engaged or contained as quickly as possible. Victims must be located and either protected in place or evacuated, whichever is tactically appropriate. The number of suspects and whether this is the only scene must be determined, as well as whether explosives or hazardous materials are present.

All of this – and much more – must be done at the same time. Of course, in reality, events always overcome theory, and unforeseen circumstances rather than perfectly executed tactics eventually bring an end to the carnage.

Incidents such as this, at least for the moment, are rare occurrences in our country. Yet without giving it much thought, I am quickly able to recall Oklahoma City, Columbine High School, Fort Hood and Virginia Tech. There have been others, and we can be sure there will be more.

In response to incidents at Jewish temples and schools in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, NYPD, LAPD and several other large agencies began to develop tactics designed for use in responding to incidents now referred to as “active shooters.” The initial training, although very good, was limited, at least in L.A., to specialized units. The shortsightedness of that decision became tragically clear in 1997 during a shootout at Bank of America in North Hollywood.

That afternoon get-together showed us how two determined young men, heavily armed and equipped, using rudimentary small unit tactics, were able to break through a much larger force of responding police officers. Rank and file LAPD officers at the time were neither trained nor equipped for such an incident. It was a horrible mess. Had it not been for the courage and initiative of individual officers, the leadership of a few supervisors and the calm professionalism of a dispatcher, it would have been much worse.

An incident like this can quickly overwhelm most agencies. Critical missions and assignments can eat up personnel in literally moments, leaving incident commanders with few assets and very little chance of containing truly determined suspects. The two guys in North Hollywood back in 1997 went through my department like butter until one realized he was cornered and committed suicide, and the other met a car full of SWAT officers with automatic weapons. Until then, the issue was very much in doubt.

Fortunately, most large agencies today are well-equipped and have developed fairly sophisticated tactics for “active shooter” scenarios. Many agencies have identified specific sites and have specific plans in anticipation of such incidents. But it will still be a young patrol officer standing in a parking lot, and a 911 operator sitting blind at a console miles away, who will be the first to begin to sort things out. Forward-thinking agencies have given them the training and tools they need.

As bad as Aurora was, it could have been worse. The suspect in this case could have been more proficient with his weapons and more in control of his mental faculties than he appears to be. Who knows what would have happened then?

By early accounts, the officers who responded that night – and especially the dispatcher who handled the communications – performed very well. We should compliment them all for a job well done under conditions no police recruit ever imagines the day they take his or her oath of office.

Tom Lorenzen is a retired LAPD commander and former consultant to the U.S. Departments of Justice and State. He can be reached at

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