Sunday, December 27, 2015

When Inaction Kills

In active shooter situations, overcoming the “freeze” of terror can be a life or death matter. Police officials and legal consultants discuss the grim consequences associated with a lack of preparation, and what can be done to better train citizens for the unthinkable.

FATAL NUMBERS: Marietta Police Department Lt. Brian Marshall points out discrepancies in the body count of the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre based on the specific actions taken by the victims at a Dec. 20 seminar in the suburbs of Atlanta. (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

MARIETTA, Ga. -- On a Sunday afternoon just a few days before Christmas, the auditorium of Marietta Middle School was jam-packed with more than 800 people. Stuffed into uncomfortable, bright azure chairs intended for the frames of sixth-graders, the audience - primarily skewing towards middle-aged and senior citizen Caucasians, albeit with a sizable smattering of younger people and African-Americans - shuffled through greeting cards and clicked through online baby shower registries on their phones. Waiting for the presentation to begin, many caught up on some light reading - novels about pirates and Tom Clancy-esque military adventures - and discussed watching documentary specials on CNN. 

They were not there for a holiday play or a winter graduation ceremony, however. They were there to learn how to stay alive. 

“We all have that immediate denial,” said Lt. Jake King, a long-time Marietta police officer who has been on the department’s SWAT team for about 15 years, at the Dec. 20 Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE) seminar. 

The city held a similar CRASE program a few weeks earlier, which, incidentally, was scheduled just days after the San Bernardino, Calif. Massacre. The crowd was much larger than expected, King said. About 200 people had to be turned away at the doors. 

His lecture extolled the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center's “Avoid, Deny, Defend” (ADD) model. While essentially a carbon copy of the Department of Homeland Security's “Run, Hide, Fight” active shooter response protocol, King said the ADD blueprint encourages citizens to take a more proactive role in emergency situations. 

The presentation was an admixture of PowerPoint slides and personal excurses. He delved into the history of the active shooter protocol - adopted in the wake of the inadequate response to the Columbine shootings - and played a clip from the 2003 film Zero Day (which he erroneously described as a high-end training video production.) “The first time I saw this video was years ago,” he said. “I was so upset, I just wanted to hurt somebody who would do something to people like this.”

It doesn’t take a whole lot of bravery to plug an innocent person full of hot lead, he said. Indeed, he said most shooters are rather cowardly, and tend to take their fingers off the trigger as soon as any resistance mounts, be it in the form of a police presence or citizens fighting back. 

Unfortunately, King said human beings have a natural tendency to “freeze” in such life or death situations. To demonstrate this, he played a video of an irked Floridian man who pulled out a handgun during a school board meeting. All of the board members, save one, stopped dead in their tracks; when a woman feebly tried to bash the attacker in the head with her purse, the auditorium erupted in guffaws.

“It’s a mindset thing of ‘this person is trying to take over the room, this classroom, this school, we can do something about it,’” King said. “If there are 25 of you versus one gunman, can he get all 25 of you?” 

Fellow Marietta police officer Lt. Brian Marshall took over the discussion. “You’ve got to dig deep and find that inner superhero,” he said, “a James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jackie Chan, Incredible Hulk.”

Whereas in most armed robbery and carjacking situations Marshall generally encourages victims to comply with their attackers’ demands, it’s an entirely different matter in an active shooter incident
. They are not there for property, he said, nor are their threats of physical harm anything but empty. “They’re not there for your wallet, they’re there for your life,” he said. 

He ran down the ADD continuum. Obviously, if one can safely escape from the shooting space, that’s the first course of action, he said. Failing that, he listed several things citizens can do to “deny” shooters entry into their confines, including barricading doors, shutting off lights and silencing cell phones. But if the parameter is breached, that leaves civilians with no other options - they have to fight back, Marshall stated. 

If you can control an attacker’s sight
, breathing or hands, Marshall said you can take control of a gunman's actions. He played several videos demonstrating tackling techniques and how one can create “improvised weapons” out of fire extinguishers and brooms. Low-tech approaches work just dandy, he assured the audience; if worst comes to worst, you can temporarily blind the assailant with a flashlight, allowing others to ambush the shooter from the periphery of his vision

Alas, Marshall recognizes that no matter how many safeguards are implemented and how much training one undergoes, there is no way to ensure safety in an active shooter situation. With the right preparation, the number of deaths and injuries can be reduced, but nothing can ever be done to guarantee the body count remains at zero when someone storms into a crowded space with guns blazing. 

“We can’t make it to where every environment is absolutely impervious,” he said. “A guy walks into the lobby of a business and starts shooting people, those first few people? There is nothing we can do for them.”

A Different Kind of Training Deficiency

In the presentation, King brought up The Station night club fire in 2003, which resulted in 100 concertgoers’ deaths. Virtually all of the lessons learned from that tragedy, he said, are applicable in active shooter situations. Whenever one enters a facility, he said the surroundings should be carefully examined, and alternate escape routes should be detected as soon as possible. The same way police officers “mentally rehearse” everyday for their duties, he said citizens would be wise to formulate their own site-specific escape plans, and communicate those emergency strategies with their families. 

Emergency planning is something Bo Mitchell, president of 911 Consulting, knows well. The former Wilton, Conn. Police Commissioner's firm advises more than 180 clients from Boston to San Francisco on security policies and procedures. His company has trained more 21,000 people, including employees at General Electric, MasterCard and the Waldorf Astoria New York

The “Run, Hide, Fight” decision-making continuum is much preferable, he said, to the most common alternative - that being, employees “freezing like does in headlights” when emergencies arise. 

Overcoming the “default human condition” of paralyzing fear is something that has to be “trained out” of people, Mitchell told Uncommon Journalism. However, while most employers have some sort of workplace violence protocol in place, very rarely do they outline detailed procedures or hold exercises. 

“Employees don’t plan and train for these things, and when I say most,” he said, “I mean just about all of them.” 

With a recent New York Police Department report estimating the average active shooter incident concludes in less than eight minutes - with many lasting only four to five minutes in duration - that frequently leaves employees to fend for themselves. “The police can’t help you,” Mitchell said, “so employers have a duty of care for planning and training their employees for an active shooter incident until police arrive."

Emergency response procedures are also a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirement for all private and public workplaces - a scope, Mitchell said, that includes such frequent mass shooting sites as schools, churches, movie theaters and shopping malls.

“OSHA requires every employer to have an emergency action plan under 29 CFR 1910.38,” he said. “All employers must train for ‘unforeseeable circumstances,’ as their lawyers will point out to them.”

While OSHA has no specific regulations in place for addressing workplace violence and active shooters, Mitchell said OSHA’s general duty clause mandates that all employers “furnish a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” 

There is, however, a fairly large loophole. About half the states, Mitchell said, have OSHA exemptions for city and state-level employees. That may save them some expenses on the front end, but in the courtroom, Mitchell said it could cost them dearly. In negligence and wrongful death cases, courts generally use OSHA standards - including a lengthy compliance directive for investigating employer practices in the wake of workplace violence incidents - even in states where the aforementioned government employee exemptions exist. 

Despite the enormous financial consequences, Mitchell said many employers still eschew active shooter preparedness training. “It gets dressed up as ‘oh, I can’t afford that or I can’t take people away from their desks,’” he said. “It’s all about denial, and the rest are simple excuses at the teenage level. It’s very immature.” 

The Concealed Carry Dilemma 

Wayne LaPierre’s statement in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting - “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” - has become something of a rallying cry for the nation’s concealed weapons carry advocates. 

To legally carry a concealed weapon in Georgia, one must be fingerprinted and pass a criminal background check. The process generally takes about a month; once the upfront fee - averaging out to about $75 - is paid, the license remains valid for five years. There are no provisions mandating permit applicants to pass an exam or test, nor any requirements for those with licenses to undergo specialized training. 

Georgia’s concealed carry laws are among the least restrictive in the nation. A bill signed into law in April 2014 greatly reduced the number of locations where concealed firearms are forbidden, theoretically allowing permitted individuals to take guns into churches, bars and certain government buildings. While HB60 is rife with caveats and exemptions, the so-called “Guns Everywhere” bill is nonetheless considered a major victory by the state’s concealed carry proponents. 

Marshall said individuals with concealed weapons can most certainly play a major role in thwarting active shooter situations. However, he stressed that gun owners should only use their weapons in defensive situations. It’s never a good idea to actively pursue an active shooter, he said, and if someone can safely escape a shooting zone to retrieve a weapon from their vehicles, the last thing they should do is reenter the location. 

“We are looking for people with guns who do not have on police uniforms,” he said. “It’s just not the best way to help the situation out.” 

When addressed by uniformed police responders, Marshall said citizens must drop their weapons - a procedure that also holds true for off-duty policemen. If possible, he also said those with concealed weapons in active shooter situations should identify themselves via telephone, so emergency responders do not mistake them for a second triggerman. 

He strongly encourages Georgia’s permitted citizens to seek continuous firearm training from qualified instructors. Simply firing off a few rounds at the range once a year, he said, does not adequately prepare someone for a real mass shooting. 

“People don’t stand there like paper targets and let you put holes in them,” he said. “These people are shot, and they keep getting shot … it’s not an instantaneous thing like you see in television.”

However, Mitchell said employers who authorize employees to bring concealed weapons into work spaces are assuming massive legal risks. 

“For every complex problem, there is a simple answer that is always wrong,” he said. “This is one of those problems.” 

Beyond putting weapons-toting employees in the crosshairs of police responders, he also said the proposition potentially imperials other employees.  

“The gaping risk of employees killed by friendly fire is always present with the police, and now the employer has multiplied that risk by managing armed employees to shoot at people who the armed employee believes are a lethal threat, in the midst of a crowded, confined workplace," he said. "If the armed employee kills or injures another employee, then the employer is the responsible party.” 

As far as the general efficacy of concealed weapons use in active shooter events, official United States Department of Justice findings indicate civilian gunfire is rarely responsible for ending mass shootings. 

According to an FBI analysis, 160 active shooter incidents transpired from 2000 to 2013. Only one was stopped by a civilian concealed-carry permit holder, who was neither a security guard or off-duty police officer. By comparison, 21 incidents - representing about 13 percent of all active shooter events in the nation - were halted by citizens without firearms, including 11 school shootings stopped by unarmed principals, teachers, students and other staffers. 

Finding an Explanation

The Marietta community is no stranger to mass shootings. Neighboring city Kennesaw - renowned for an unenforced gun ordinance requiring its heads-of-households to own firearms for self-defense purposes - has been the site of two active shooter incidents over the last six years; a Jan. 2010 incident at a truck rental business that resulted in three fatalities and an April 2014 incident in which six people were shot at a packing warehouse

In 2015, Georgia witnessed no less than 19 shooting incidents in which at least three people were injured or killed. Three were killed and an additional two injured in a May 2015 shooting spree in Rockdale County. In September, 10 people were injured in a Greenville bar shootout that allegedly began as an altercation over gambling. The same day as the San Bernardino shootings, one person was killed and three others injured in a mass shooting in Savannah

On the national level, Mitchell said active shooter incidents in workplaces have exploded over the last three years. In the five years prior to Sandy Hook, there was about one workplace shooting per month in the United States in which one or more person was killed. Since the Dec. 2012 mass shooting, the rate has quadrupled; now, he said the nation is averaging a workplace shooting with at least one fatality every week. 

As to why the rate has increased so much over such a short period of time, opinions vary. Subscribing to the “No Notoriety” hypothesis, King said most mass shooters are inspired by widespread coverage of other shooting incidents. He recalled the horror of the on-air slayings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward last August, fearing online-broadcast murder will become the next big trend for glory-obsessed killers.

“We should never name the suspects,” he said. “If you want to know the names, know the names of the heroes or the victims, the people who stopped them.”

That sentiment is shared by Marshall, who said the ever-present nature of the 24-hour news cycle and social media ensures that mass killers receive ample exposure. However, he believes attempts to comprehend the “reasons” behind such murders remain pointless. “There’s no understanding terrorists and psychopaths,” he said. 

Whether an act of terror or a “glory killing,” Mitchell said the modus operandi  is the same; the site has some kind of specific meaning for the attacker, and he - just 4 percent of active shooters are female - is trying to maximize casualties. Their own death, he added, is hardly a deterrent. “They go in knowing they are not going to come out,” he said. 

As apparent by the bulk of mass shooting incidents in Georgia in 2015, however, not all shooters are fueled by a desire for infamy. In fact, in several incidents, the identity of the gunmen remains unknown to lawmen and media alike. While high body count tragedies like the Umpqua Community College Massacre garner all the publicity, the cold, hard statistics show that a majority of mass shootings in the U.S. consist of isolated incidents in which the assailant targets specific individuals, not random victims. Far more mass shootings are extreme examples of domestic violence as opposed to domestic terror, and far more stem from escalated arguments than a penchant for media exposure. 

Each year, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates two million workplace violence incidents transpire in America’s places of business. But the idea of employees “snapping,” Mitchell said, is a myth. Whenever officials conduct investigations, coworkers and employers almost always drudge up tell-tale signs that eventual shooters were spiraling towards explosive violence - erratic behavior, hostility towards colleagues, and so on. However, Mitchell said coworkers very rarely report such warning signs to their employers, and even when they do, management is often hesitant to conduct any thorough follow-ups.

Regardless of the reasons why a gunman embarks upon a murderous rampage, Mitchell said businesses still have a legal, if not moral, obligation to train employees for the worst case scenarios. 

“You can’t stop crazy, and no court or agency will hold an employer responsible for stopping crazy,” he said. “But every court, every employee and every parent has a responsibility responding to crazy.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2015

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