DHS, Fusion Centers Struggle to Respond to Mass Shootings

An instructional video on surviving an active shooter incident produced by Ready Houston with funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative grant program.

Public Intelligence

Four days after the mass shooting last July in Aurora, Colorado, a project of the Houston Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security called Ready Houston released a training video to help educate members the public about how to survive a mass shooting.  The six-minute video, which was produced with $200,000 from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative, includes a dramatic recreation of a man dressed entirely in black walking into an office building and beginning to shoot people at random with a shotgun that he pulls from a small satchel.  Variously described as “outlandish“, “surreal” and “over-the-top“, the video has met with mixed responses since it was re-released by several fusion centers and local agencies, including most recently the Alabama Department of Homeland Security.

The response to the video and other instructional items produced by DHS, fusion centers and law enforcement agencies in response to recent mass shootings demonstrates the difficulty in responding to tragedies where often little can be done to save innocent lives.  After the mass shooting last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fusion centers around the country rushed to issue bulletins discussing everything from tactics for countering mass shooters to suggestions for dealing with children in response to the shooting.  Some of the bulletins present useful facts regarding procedures for dealing with active shooter situations, the law enforcement term for incidents where an individual is attempting to kill people in a confined area, and links to resources for emergency planners and school officials.  The Delaware Valley Intelligence Center issued a bulletin the day of the shooting to “provide some basic information on active shooter situations and immediate actions that should be taken in the event an active shooter incident were to occur.”  The bulletin contains a three-point plan for reacting to an active shooter:

1. EVACUATE (if possible)
• Have an escape route and plan in mind.
• Leave your belongings behind.
• Keep your hands visible and open palms facing forward.
• Follow instructions of police officers.
• Have a designated meeting point and knowledge of everyone who is present.

• If you are in an office, stay there.
• If you are in a hallway, lobby etc. get into a room.
• Lock and barricade the door with large items (i.e., desks, file cabinets). If the door can not be locked or barricaded, lay on your back with your feet up against the door to use your body weight as a barricade.
• Get as low as possible, lay on the floor.
• Silence all electronic devices.
• Remain quiet. Remain calm.
• Dial 911, if possible, to alert police of location, physical description, and type weapon(s) used by the shooter(s).
• If you cannot speak, leave the line open and allow the dispatcher to listen.

• As a last resort and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to take the active shooter down. When the shooter is at close range and you cannot flee, your chance of survival is much greater if you try to incapacitate him/her. Act with physical aggression, and throw items at the active shooter.

Another bulletin from the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC) called “Helping Your Community Feel Safe” describes techniques for helping children cope with the most recent mass shooting.  Given that the “magnitude of death and destruction in traumatic events require special attention and communication with children”, the bulletin recommends providing “structured time to discuss the event” and limiting “exposure to television and other sources of information about the disaster and its victims, especially for children.”  The bulletin also recommends that parents and teachers be “alert to changes in a child’s usual behavior – drop in grades, loss of interest, not doing homework, increased sleepiness or distraction, isolating themselves and weight changes.”  Teachers are particularly encouraged to increase their “students’ sense of control and mastery at school” by letting them plan a “special activity”.

Issues with providing practical responses to school attacks and mass shootings have also affected other agencies.  Past bulletins from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime have stated that “school shooters” often “engaged in repetitive viewing of violent media and were often fascinated with previous school shootings.”  The bulletin warns of “repeated viewing of movies depicting school shootings, such as ‘Zero Day’ and ‘Elephant’,” which “may indicate a fascination with campus attacks.”  A 2006 guide from the Regional Organized Crime Information Center (ROCIC), one of six Regional Information Sharing Systems funded by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, recommends identifying school shooters before they strike by their interests and school work.  The guide lists interest in “Satanist cults, Nazism” and “violent media” as potential indicators of a school shooter, recommending that teachers look out for “dark themes present in school work, personal writing, humor, drawings, or doodles” that may indicate a predisposition towards violent behavior.

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