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