D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier is urging that civilians confronted by an active shooter in some cases try to stop the gunman before law enforcement authorities arrive, saying quick action could save lives.
The chief, appearing on the Sunday “60 Minutes” CBS news show, noted that in many multiple shootings, most victims are killed within the first 10 minutes — at the Navy Yard shootings in 2013, 10 of the 12 victims were dead in fewer than six minutes. Lanier told correspondent Anderson Cooper that police simply can’t get to the scene in time to stop the initial and deadliest onslaught.
“Your options are run, hide or fight,” Lanier said on the nationally broadcast show. “I always say if you can get out, getting out’s your first option, your best option. If you’re in a position to try and take the gunman down, to take the gunman out, it’s the best option for saving lives before police can get there.”
While Lanier’s blunt words may strike some as revelatory, the advice was offered in 2013 in a video titled “Run, Hide, Fight,” from the Houston mayor’s Office of Public Safety and funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It is posted on the FBI’s Internet site that also contains a detailed analysis of active shootings and how police confronted the gunmen.
But coming from the police chief of the nation’s capital, speaking on national television, the words have gained a wider audience. “For a major city police chief to say that is breaking new ground,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that advises police departments across the country.
Wexler said that historically, police have urged citizens not to get involved, but instead to call 911 and wait for officers to respond. That remains true in most crimes, he said. “But if you’re dealing with suicide bombers or terrorists, it’s a completely different dynamic,” Wexler said. “I think that because so much can happen in so few seconds, intervention by citizens can make a big difference.”
The “60 Minutes” show focused mostly on how law enforcement in the United States has changed strategies since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when police waited for tactical squads to form before storming the building. By then, 13 people had been killed.
Now, police confront gunmen as quickly as they can. At the Navy Yard, officers armed with handguns went inside before more heavily armed and better trained police arrived. But it took those first officers five minutes to arrive, and by then, Aaron Alexis had shot most of his victims.
A D.C. police spokesman said Lanier was unavailable Monday to expand on or explain her comments on Sunday’s show.
There are examples of people intervening in active shooting situations. In August, three U.S. friends tackled and disarmed a suspected Islamist militant with two guns, a knife and nine ammunition clips aboard a train headed to Paris. One had his thumb nearly severed in the attack. In October, a former Army infantryman was shot three times trying to block a classroom door at a community college in Oregon to prevent a gunman from entering. The men were labeled heroes.
Police tactics are continuing to evolve to respond to the newest threats and have again become an issue after this month’s deadly attacks in Paris. In New York, authorities are training 35,000 officers to confront active shooters and suicide bombers, and last week, the department deployed roving groups of tactical officers in Manhattan so they could quickly respond to any call for help from a terrorist threat.
The “Run, Hide, Fight” video recommends confrontation “as a last resort, if your life is at risk.” But once committed to fight, the video urges people to “act with aggression. Improvise weapons. Disarm him.”
Actors in the video are in a crowded break room as a gunman armed with assault rifles tries to break in. The narrator says: “Commit to taking the shooter down, no matter what.” As the gunman enters, the video shows employees attacking him — two with coffee mugs, others with a chair and a fire extinguisher.
J. Pete Blair, director of research for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, based at Texas State University, said his group also advises confrontation as a last resort. His team adopted a variant of the “run, hide, fight” catchphrase — “avoid, deny and defend.” First avoid the gunman, then deny access and finally fight. He said the advice for both similar ideas was adopted by federal law enforcement after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
“If you are in close proximity to the shooter and the choice is between being shot and fight, you fight,” Blair said. He said studies show that in most active shooter scenarios, gunmen “spontaneously stop,” typically by committing suicide, “because there are no more available targets.” Blair said that in one in five active shooting cases, “potential victims stop the attackers themselves” and that “usually they are unarmed.”
Blair said that the videos and the advice are designed to get people thinking of what they would do in the rare event they find themselves under attack, much like families practice fire drills and cities go through disaster preparedness training. “It’s accepting the reality of the situation we live in currently,” he said. “If you spend a few moments thinking about how you would react, you will perform better and increase the chances that you can survive.”
On “60 Minutes,” Lanier said police and civilians can rarely prevent fatalities in such cases, but they can minimize casualties. The chief acknowledged that advising confrontation is “kind of counterintuitive to what cops always tell people.”
Cooper said, “You’re telling them that now though?”
Lanier answered: “We are.”