Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 18, 2014

Hero or Victim: Encouraging Self-Dispatching of Off-Duty Police Officers to Active Shooter Incidents

Filed under: Education,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on August 18, 2014

Today’s post was written by Matthew Hanley.

Officer Smith receives the call he has been dreading his entire career, an active shooter at the local elementary school.

The 911 dispatcher provides the only description available of the shooter – a white male wearing a black shirt.  Officer Smith arrives in just under 2 minutes.

As he exits the vehicle, he hears a series of shots ring out.  He makes the decision to enter the school alone.  Down the first hallway he encounters the gunman – white male, black shirt, handgun.  He instinctively fires 3 rounds and the suspect falls to the floor.

As Officer Smith approaches the suspect, he recognizes the man as an off-duty police officer.

Shots continue to ring out in the gymnasium.

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This is precisely the scenario that could play out across the country if a new mobile phone application called Hero911 becomes widely adopted.

Hero911 is meant to reduce law enforcement response time to active shooting incidents at schools.  Schools purchase a service called SchoolGuard ($2500 setup fee and $99/mo).  Police officers voluntarily download the free Hero911 “social protection network” application.  (By the way, the phrase “social protection network” is trademarked.)

When an active shooter incident occurs, the school activates SchoolGuard (also trademarked) which immediately notifies nearby police officers, both on-duty and off-duty, of the incident.

(The Hero911 app is clearly meant to be used only by sworn police officers or “a qualified retired law enforcement officer.”  But one of the people who recommends the app on the Hero911 website — “To all sheepdogs, the Hero911™ Network can save lives, please put the app on your phone, I did.” —  is Lt Col (retired) Dave Grossman.  Grossman is a former Army Ranger, teacher, consultant, and author of On Killing, On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs, and other publications.  He does not appear to be an active or retired police officer.  One wonders how many other knowledgeable, experienced, and weapons-smart non-police officers might also “put the app on” their phone.)

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Cleary seconds count when responding to active shooter incidents and law enforcement agencies should be exploring ways to expedite that response.  But these types of incidents are extremely chaotic and the response must be conducted in a coordinated manner utilizing best practices.

Encouraging the self-dispatch of off-duty officers is potentially dangerous.

Without the ability to communicate via radio, off-duty officers are not able to receive accurate suspect/incident information or able to communicate their location to other responders.  Without a uniform or clothing identifying the individual as a police officer, the likelihood of the off-duty officer being mistaken for a suspect is real and potentially deadly.

Hero911 does briefly address these concerns – somewhat –  on their website (FAQs).  Here’s an example (my emphasis):

Officers without proper training, skill and identification should not respond, but remain vigilant after receiving the alert. ….All laws, home agency policies and protocols must be followed.

Officer safety is a major concern during these catastrophes. Please consider purchasing a well-stocked “Go-Bag” for your personal vehicle. Hats and vests with bold POLICE markings are strongly recommended.

Applications like Hero911 are well intentioned and could potentially reduce response times to active shootings by creating a direct link between school officials and nearby police officers.

However, before law enforcement agencies endorse the use of such applications, policies and training should be developed to address the self-dispatching of off-duty officers.

Additional information can be found at www.hero911.org.

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Matthew Hanley is a senior executive in a state police agency.  The views expressed in this post are Hanley’s; they do not represent the opinions of any agency or organization.

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7 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2014 @ 5:03 am

The Active Shooter is a perplexing problem and as pointed out in the post needs US to use its best thinking.

And what involvement does DHS have with this issue and policies?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2014 @ 7:31 am

IMO NO OFF-DUTY POLICE SHOULD EVER BE DEPLOYED ON THEIR OWN VOLITION WITHOUT HAVING RECEIVED ORDERS.

Comment by Plato

August 18, 2014 @ 7:48 am

@William: I’m guessing DHS is injecting its two-cents because of funding? It’s definitely not because of actual school house expertise. I think a lot of the problem with school-based active shooter “solutions” is that the people offering these “solutions” have never worked in a school. Makes sense right?

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 18, 2014 @ 9:27 am

Plato! Agree! Department of Education has put out over $1B in grants since Columbine for k-12 emergency planning. Nothing for post secondary to my knowledge.

Comment by John Comiskey

August 18, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

Notwithstanding the good intentions and possible good outcomes, the likelihood of friendly fire directed at plain clothes officers and others is far too great.

Plain clothes operations of on-duty police officers is hazardous enough. Typically, they have police radios and are able to promptly show their shields. Officers from their own agencies likely recognize them too. Officers from other agencies do not have this convenience.

If anything, off-duty officers could respond to local precinct or designated staging location and once properly identified and credentialed might serve as a secondary force. Admittedly, the shooting would likely be over by then.

One tactic that NYPD uses is the donning of “raid jackets” that plain clothes officers carry in their cars that must be worn at “after” crime scenes.

Arming other than qualified and trained school security personnel should be avoided. Again, the greater likelihood would be the accidental use of the weapons against ourselves.

This blogger promotes greater gun control, gun safety, and common sense.

Comment by Bruce Martin

August 18, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

Self-dispatch has been an issue in a number of responses in several disciplines. Notably, “Organizations, response units, and individuals proceeding on their own initiative directly to an incident site, without the knowledge and permission of the host jurisdiction and the Incident Commander, complicate the exercise of command, increase the risks faced by bona fide responders, and exacerbate the challenge of accountability.”– Arlington County 9/11 report

Fire agencies in California have experienced counter productive tactics, unaccounted responders (and potentially in unnecessary jeopardy diverting limited resources to their care) , and “out of policy” choices in fire and rescue incidents involving self-dispatch.

When time is of the essence, the art of command as learned in the fire discipline leads me to believe that strong agency policy and training provide sufficient guidance for independent action during the chaotic early stages of an event. When responders come from a variety of agencies (plus retirees, volunteers, Good Samaritans) it is much harder to guarantee an optimum outcome, all good intentions acknowledged. That’s the tactical piece our colleagues have identified above.

The policy piece – what executive of a law agency will adopt this without constraint? From my admittedly outsider’s perspective it seems like quite a bit of policy and law surrounds use of force where the executive controls the employees. Will chiefs of police be willing to adopt crowd-sourced responders? Will their attorneys? Should the school activate it or the LE dispatch center? Crowed sourced responders to provide CPR (e.g. PulsePoint) is one thing; crowd sourced deadly force seems more complicated. I’m not sure that a disclaimer as mentioned in the article is sufficient.

Comment by Michael Brady

August 21, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

Matthew,

“Applications like Hero911 are well intentioned…”

“Schools purchase a service called SchoolGuard ($2500 setup fee and $99/mo).”

Let’s not forget that when it comes to homicide, schools are the safest places our kids can be in our communities. 0.9-1.8% of all all homicides of children 5-18 years old occur in school http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fv9311.pdf (page 9).

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