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People gather outside the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., at the scene of a mass shooting early Friday morning, July 20, 2012.

Karl Gehring, Associated Press - Ap

Police advise flight, hiding or fighting in case of mass shootings

  • Article by: ERICA GOODE
  • New York Times
  • April 6, 2013 - 6:57 PM

 

The speed and deadliness of recent high-profile shootings have prompted police departments to recommend fleeing, hiding or fighting in the event of a mass attack, instead of remaining passive and waiting for help.

The shift represents a “sea change,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which recently held a meeting in Washington to discuss shootings like those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.

The traditional advice to the public has been “don’t get involved, call 911,” Wexler said, adding, “There’s a recognition in these ‘active shooter’ situations that there may be a need for citizens to act in a way that perhaps they haven’t been trained for or equipped to deal with.”

Wexler and others noted that the change echoes a transformation in police procedures that began after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, when some departments began telling officers who arrived first on a scene to act immediately rather than waiting for backup. The approach has become widespread, as a succession of high-profile shootings across the country has made it clear that no city or town is immune and that police agencies must be prepared to take an active approach.

“We used to sit outside and set up a perimeter and wait for the SWAT team to get there,” said Michael Dirden, an executive assistant chief of the Houston Police Department. “Now it’s a recognition that time is of the essence and those initial responders have to go in,” he said, adding that since the Virginia Tech University shooting in 2007, the department has been training first responders to move in on their own when they encounter active gunfire.

Research on mass shootings over the past decade has bolstered the idea that people at the scene of an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued.

In an analysis of 84 such shooting cases in the United States from 2000 to 2010, for example, researchers at Texas State University found that the average time it took for the police to respond was three minutes.

“But you see that about half the attacks are over before the police get there, even when they arrive quickly,” said J. Pete Blair, an author of the research, which is set to be published in a book this year.

In the absence of a police presence, victims’ responses often made the difference between life and death, Blair said.

In 16 of the attacks studied by the researchers, civilians were able to stop the perpetrator, subduing him in 13 cases and shooting him in three cases. In other attacks, civilians have obstructed or delayed the gunman until the police arrived.

As part of the research, Blair and his colleagues looked at survival rates and the actions taken by people in classrooms under attack during the Virginia Tech massacre, in which Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and teachers before killing himself.

In two classrooms, the students and instructors tried to hide or play dead after Cho entered. Nearly all were shot, and most died. In a third classroom, Prof. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, told his students to jump out the second-story window while he tried to hold the door shut, delaying Cho from coming in. Librescu was killed, but many of the students survived. In another classroom, where the students and teacher blocked the door with a heavy desk and held it in place, Cho could not get in, and everyone lived.

© 2014 Star Tribune