Active Killing Incident Response


The global phenomena of Active Killing Incidents include a wide range of possible weapons and tactics used by individuals and groups to kill in a confined space or open area. The prevalence and ready access to firearms in the US lead to the more common but constrained term  ‘Active Shooter’ in reference to these events. Does this focus on tools prejudice thinking to one mode and restrict definition of the problem.


A quick survey of international events shows that knives, incendiary and explosive devices, and vehicles are also of consequence. Think of the 2014 Kunming Railway attack by multiple attackers with knives leaving 33 dead and over 100 injured.  Or the use of an incendiary device in the 2003 Daekoo Rail attack in South Korea which caused 192 deaths and injuries to 148.

More important than weapon choice, psychology or motivation is the matter of time for response to active killing incidents. The factor of time defines our thinking. It caused a revolution in police affairs for 1st Responders, line officers, and patrol. Patrol officers now have the primary responsibility for active killing incidents. The prior trend of training silos and compartmenting of tactical tools and skill-sets in specialized units did not prepare patrol officers for the contingencies of both active killing and terrorist incident.

The analysis of time constraints and opportunity structures aimed at preventing unnecessary death changed in the US in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The mission profile of 1st Responders  has irrevocably changed  and evolved to meet the threat over the last 25 years. Active killing incidents and terrorism both have caused a paradigm change in education, training, and response.


While there remain some definitional problems for active killing incident response, these blurry lines are bypassed when it comes to the public security mission and the known time criticality of this threat profile. The mission remains the same. No matter the weapon used, the goal of police intervention for active killing incidents is to neutralize threat(s) by preventing access to potential victims. To rescue the injured. And to take action to neutralize the threat by means including use of deadly force.

We know that motivation varies for active killers. Most are carried out without external direction or command influence. Some have their origin with influence by hate groups or violent extremist sentiment.

We know that the threat profile includes many weapon types to include firearms, knives, explosive/incendiary devices, and vehicles. We also know that active killers are more than likely to target multiple victims unless stopped.


We know that active killers frequently provide early warning by ‘leaking’ plans, intentions, and threats to close associates. They will generate online threat messaging. And provide other observable behaviors like the consumption of violent extremist and hate media  or acquisition of weapons, supplies, and materials precursor to attack.

These issues inform of larger organizational components and agency-wide gestures to thwart or reduce active killing incidents at various junctures in our planned interaction: Pre-Attack, Immediate Attack, Other Response Periods-Decision Points, and Post-Attack Recovery.

Pre-attack response is enhanced by intelligence-led policing. Prior to 9/11, law enforcement intelligence units and components were focused on crime analysis. Now the whole cycle of intelligence from collection to dissemination and information sharing between partnered agencies at all levels has been fully embraced in law enforcement.

Currently our Fusion Centers, Specialized Intelligence Units, Patrol Embedded Intelligence Officers all contribute to providing early warning & indicators and enhance overall response to launched attacks. Intelligence and operations must always establish a strong handshake. Half the organizational battle is insuring this connection.


Early response is aided by community policing initiatives and suspicious activity reporting. Sensitizing the public and making the public a true stakeholder in public security has prevented many incidents at schools, churches, and places of business. Given that our adversary will often leak information and issue threats prior to launching an attack, it is important that everyone acts as a sensor to stop active killing before it ever unfolds. Other tools for preemptive response can include open source collection and social media monitoring for public safety purposes.

Our overall reaction to mitigate aims at stopping the killing and preventing unnecessary death among the injured. The integration of systems in response is desired for a comprehensive multi-stakeholder, multi-dimensional response to active killing incidents. Now more than ever, Fire/EMS is learning to cohabitate in the tactical environment with police partners. Our legacy concepts about scene security and duties in the ‘hot zone’ of a critical incident are now evolving rapidly.

Big complex problems drive the need for cross-agency planning, cooperation, and workload sharing. This is especially true for active killing incidents which may persist over time like the swarming attacks of Mumbai or the complexity of incidents like Westgate and Beslan. Readiness must always take into account the possibility of multiple actors with paramilitary capabilities and combined arms. Prepare for the unexpected and the worst problems in this spectrum of threat. Scour your agency for capability gaps and chinks in its armor.


In the same vein,  line officers and specialized tactical units must regularly cross-train to integrate properly for complex, persistent versions of active killing as well as for when an incident transforms into traditional food for SWAT with hostage situations and barricaded subjects.


Once an attack is launched, the active killing incident response becomes acutely time critical. The primacy and necessity of fast reaction by line officers cannot be overstated. The key overarching principle and planned interaction is movement to contact in order to directly engage threat(s) and thereby stop the killing. The aforementioned revolution in police affairs is the investment in enhanced tactical capabilities for patrol. Patrol must learn to dominate the battlespace.

New capabilities for line officers has added value for counterterrorism, major crime, and gang violence. Some of the tradecraft and training now offered to patrol officers includes : Area and Structure Clearing, Breaching, Tactical Movement, Firearms Training, Trauma Care, Casualty Evacuation, Search & Rescue, Leadership, and Mindset. These education and training initiatives breed multi-functional, adaptive, and resilient officers suited for the challenge.  Equipment supports the role with patrol rifles, PPE and ballistic protection, breaching tools, and trauma kit.

Every agency determines its own priority training requirement in view of known best practices and standards, agency mandate and the overall threat matrix it contends with. The assessment of agency-wide readiness levels, baseline knowledge and skill, study of after action reporting from major incidents will often point at training deficits for 1st Responders.

This recognition is an opportunity to determine long-term objectives which support the public safety posture, distributed missions, and provide strategic guidance in planning a successful response to time critical problems.  Agencies that make a strong use of online electronic instruction, roll call training, and direct platform-based practical instruction in combination will fill those visible gaps in capability.

The agency response to active killing incidents is also enhanced with technology investments: Mobile Command Post, Distributed Sensor Systems (like Acoustic Shot Detection), Video Surveillance, and Airborne Surveillance. Be careful to invest in humans first and technologies second.

We must waste no time in developing and brainstorming a robust concept of operations for active killing incident response. Develop an agency-wide scheme of requirements to foster integrated action and response to critical incidents. Conduct frequent table-top exercises and demonstrate functionality with scenario-based training and gaming. Test your mettle with large-scale inter-agency capstone exercises.

  • Implement 1st Responder and patrol officer tools, tactics, and procedures designed for strategic response to Active Killing Incidents.
  •  ?Insure training and preparation prerequisite for the integration & coordination of Fire/EMS, hospital systems, and city services.
  • Lead community policing education initiatives for civilians at schools, churches, and places of business that advance the preparedness of civilian stakeholders.
  • ?Always Remember that our line patrol officers have the mandate and ultimate responsibility to prevent and reduce death and injury in active killing incidents

Most crucial to defense is the idea that we are all responsible for public security and safety. Semper in Via!

About the Author: Aaron Cunningham is the President of the International Tactical Training Association (ITTA)





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