Responding to a call of a mass shooting, police officers in the United States are trained, above all else, to stop the gunman. Act with urgency. Defend innocent lives.
As new questions emerged on Friday about the police response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, experts described those principles as the central tenets for handling such circumstances — a set of protocols that have evolved significantly over the last two decades but are widely accepted by law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Officers are taught to enter quickly in small formations — or even enter with only one or two officers — to disable any gunman. Texas protocols, included in materials that Uvalde officers were trained on as recently as two months ago, advise that an “officer’s first priority is to move in and confront the attacker. This may include bypassing the injured and not responding to cries for help from children.”
An entirely different approach may be called for if the gunfire ends, experts say. Then police are trained to use slower tactics appropriate for a barricaded gunman or hostage situation.
The guidelines sound straightforward, but the scenarios often are not. The protocols have been examined time and again over the last two decades amid devastating massacres in cities around the country. Officers must make moment-by-moment judgment calls based on often incomplete information in shifting, highly volatile situations where every second is essential. And none of it, experts acknowledge, can serve as an antidote to the underlying problem of gunmen intent on causing violence inside grocery stores, churches and schools.
“It’s very incident-specific,” said Ashley Heiberger, a retired police captain from Pennsylvania who trains police officers. “There’s not usually a perfect answer, because there are disadvantages to the best plan.”
Still, in a school shooting, law enforcement should err on the side of neutralizing the threat, said Ronald Tunkel, a retired agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who has analyzed school shootings. “If you know children are being murdered, why do you wait?” he said. “Get in there.”
In Uvalde, where 19 children and two teachers were killed on Tuesday, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steven C. McCraw, said on Friday that the commander overseeing the police had made the wrong choice when he treated the evolving situation as a “barricaded subject” rather than an active shooting. As police officers gathered in the school halls, children made multiple 911 calls from inside the classrooms over a period of more than an hour, reporting dead and wounded classmates. Inside the school, while an initial burst of at least 100 shots ended quickly, sporadic gunfire continued.
“Of course it was not the right decision,” Mr. McCraw said. “It was a wrong decision, period. There’s no excuse for that.”
He continued, “When there’s an active shooter, the rules change.”
The best practices for such shootings have evolved considerably since 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Colorado, and officers were trained to maintain a perimeter and wait for a tactical team.
“Columbine changed everything because they realized that although it was not a bad plan to wait, people will get killed while you’re waiting,” said Robert J. Louden, a professor emeritus of criminal justice and homeland security at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.
Since then, the police have increasingly emphasized speed. In an Elkhart, Ind., supermarket in 2014, officials said that a gunman who had shot two people was aiming his weapon at a third when officers fatally shot the gunman within a minute of arriving.
Other shooting massacres, too, have revealed how quickly lives can be lost. At Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, 26 people were killed, including 20 children, in six minutes before the police arrived. In Las Vegas in 2017, 59 people died at an outdoor concert festival over 12 minutes before the police closed in on the gunman’s hotel room.
In some cases, experts said, mass shooting events can transition between active situations and barricaded or hostage situations. In the latter, the priority becomes making contact with the aggressor and starting negotiations to persuade a gunman to surrender or just gain valuable time while a tactical team is assembled.
But even hostage situations can require complex judgment calls about when to use force — particularly if trapped victims are wounded and need treatment. “An immediate and overwhelming tactical assault may be the safest and most effective response,” a Justice Department review of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., said.
That shooting in 2016, in which 49 people were killed, revealed how fluid such situations can be; the crisis transitioned to a hostage situation when the gunman stopped firing and barricaded himself in the bathroom with multiple victims. Ultimately, with wounded people calling 911 from inside the bathroom and the gunman telling negotiators that he was armed with explosives, the police decided to breach a bathroom wall. They later faced questions about whether they had waited too long.
Over time, attackers have learned that the police will enter immediately and have responded by using barricades as a matter of course, law enforcement experts said. Before shooting six people at a church in Southern California this month, a gunman chained the doors closed and glued the locks.
A study of active shootings between 2000 and 2010 by Peter Blair of Texas State University found that half of them ended before the police arrived, most commonly because of suicide, but some when the gunman was subdued by people on the scene or simply left. When the police ended the incident, it was most often by killing or subduing the gunman.
Mr. Heiberger said that despite what officers are taught about how to respond, departments vary on whether they are required to put themselves directly in harm’s way. Some expect officers to head toward gunfire, while others give more discretion. “Most agency policy likely does not require you to go on a suicide mission,” he said. “But I would think that most officers would feel a moral obligation — protecting lives is your highest duty.”
In Uvalde, two officers suffered graze wounds before retreating after an initial confrontation with the gunman, as the commander at the scene called for more officers and more equipment.
Two months ago, the Uvalde school district hosted a training for officers dealing with active shooting situations. The instructional guidelines used in the training were based on those produced by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, according to images and documents reviewed by The New York Times. Those materials tell officers that they will usually need to place themselves in harm’s way and “display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent.”
“As first responders we must recognize that innocent life must be defended,” the materials say. “A first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.”
Doug Conn, the police chief at Angelina College whose materials were used in that Uvalde training, said urgency has become the focus of such trainings in recent years.
“The officer has to be ready at any given moment to go to the threat, eliminate the threat,” said Mr. Conn, who did not lead the Uvalde training and had not been aware that his materials were used there. “Your own personal safety is not a question.”
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.