Retired BCSO Cmdr. James ‘JJ’ Woolsey: The Evolution of an Active Shooter Response
By Space Coast Daily // May 30, 2022
What have we learned thus far?
As society continues to try and process yet another tragic active shooter event in America, there will be a lot of grieving for years to come and a lot of unanswered questions.
The impact of these tragedies is so deep and everlasting, it will change a community’s landscape forever. There are families, love ones, friends, and yes first responders, who will have to carry this burden for a long time.
What have we learned thus far?
When the tragedy occurred in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO., it forever changed law enforcement tactics across the U.S.
Prior to the Columbine High School tragedy, a law enforcement response to an active shooter type situation was to set up a perimeter around the school and wait for a S.W.A.T. team, which is essentially what the first responders did that day. At the time, it was an accepted, safe practice utilized all across law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
One of the hard lessons learned from the Columbine High School tragedy was lives were lost while police waited for a tactical element to respond and take out the threat (shooters).
The outcome for law enforcement was an immediate, sweeping change in law enforcement tactics on how to deal with an active shooter. Instead of waiting for a tactical resource (SWAT team) to get on scene, law enforcement officers were re-trained to immediately go into the threat zone, locate the shooter, and neutralize the threat without hesitation.
Why was there a sudden, needed change in philosophy and tactics?? The logical reason was to save lives as quickly as possible. That’s what cops want to do. Even at the cost of risking their own lives to save another.
So, why was there a deviation in tactics at Robb Elementary School in, Uvalde Texas? It will take months to find out all the answers, but what seems to be a common denominator is it was believed the situation evolved into a “Barricaded Suspect.”
You see, police officers rely on their training and experiences to get them through most situations. With an active shooter situation, police officers are trained to go to the sound of gun fire, utilizing expediated clearing tactics, locate the shooter, and neutralize the threat.
If there is a lull in the shooting, the pace may slow down so not to miss the suspect, but it’s always a forward movement towards the last place the suspect was thought to be. Regardless, the objective stays the same……locate and neutralize the threat.
Now there is a lot of debate in the law enforcement tactics community about when or if an active shooter turns into a barricaded suspect situation. In a barricaded suspect situation where the shooting stops or there is a lull, you set up containment on the suspect and try to negotiate a peaceful surrender without additional lives lost.
To me, in an active shooter situation, a lull or stoppage in the shooters’ actions, doesn’t change the outcome. Using sound, aggressive tactics, but the goal stays the same, move towards and neutralize the threat.
Personally, I think we blur the lines when we try to differentiate the two situations as its evolving. An active shooter situation is a known, active threat that is unfolding in real time to create the most amount of carnage in a short period of time, and unless it’s not stopped immediately, people will get hurt or die.
My thought is there is no time to negotiate a surrender or wait for additional resources, the suspect’s outcome was determined once he entered the school grounds and pulled the trigger. These people are cowards. They don’t want to negotiate, they are not trying to buy time, they are there to make a statement and kill innocent people.
Please don’t take my position the wrong way, I am not condemning the police officers for their actions that tragic day. They had to face the ultimate challenges and utilized their training and experience to get them through it. What they experienced and saw that day is something they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives.
As I reflect back on this horrific event I, like most current and retired police officers, think about the “what if” scenarios. The “what if I was the incident commander,” would I have handled it the same way?
I wasn’t there, so it’s easy for me to arm chair quarterback the situation. I can only hope law enforcement learns from this tragic event and it makes them better first responders. I can assure you of one thing, there wasn’t a police officer on that scene who didn’t want to go in that school and saves those children. I pray for them all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Retired Cmdr.James ‘JJ” Woolsey served the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office from 1989 to 2021. Cmdr. Woolsey was a member of the BCSO SWAT team for 30 years, with the last 10 years as SWAT Commander. His diverse career included Patrol, SWAT, Criminal Investigations, Special Operations and Command Staff. Cmdr. Woolsey was also an instructor in the field of Active Shooter and tactical firearms.