The devil is in the details
11 Jan 2016|

Douglas Fry’s recent Strategist contribution, ‘Australian police require proactive approach to shooter threat’, illustrates the challenge of covering complex issues in 800 words. I applaud Douglas for strongly supporting the introduction of active shooting training in Australia, but I believe that three of his key points require substantive qualification.

Douglas argues that active shooter tactics ‘represent a significant departure from the previous cordon and wait for tactical support paradigm that US police dispensed with long ago’. I believe that the argument is wrong on both accounts.

The use of active shooter or cordon-and-contain techniques by police isn’t a binary choice: they each have valid uses under specific circumstances.

Active shooter situations occur when police officers on the ground believe that the armed individual is actively inflicting injuries or death. By definition, the incident in Ohio last year, which Douglas references in his piece, wasn’t an active shooter incident at all—arguably, it was the result of poor practice.

In active shooter incidents, a delayed police response such as those used in hostage scenarios could have horrific consequences. An officer who uses an active shooter response model will focus on stopping the shooter and reducing the number of deaths.

There are important differences between an active shooter and hostage situations, especially when it comes to appropriate training. Hostage situations involve threats by persons who have barricaded themselves in a building, or protected area, but aren’t actively harming anyone, although they may have threatened to do so.

Police responses to hostage taking are all about a measured and delayed response. Best practice in those incidents involves cordoning an area and containing the hostage taker. Police efforts are then focused on negotiating with the offender or offenders to prevent violence, achieve the release of hostages and a resolution that doesn’t result in deaths. US police have most definitely not dispensed with the cordon and contain paradigm, in fact, containment and negotiation strategies yield a 95% success rate in terms of resolving a hostage crisis without fatalities to either hostages or hostage takers.

Douglas’ work also supports Australian general duties police being provided with rifles for increased firepower. But the nature of the Lindt Café and Parramatta Police station attacks hardly support such an argument. In both cases, one an active shooter incident and the other a hostage situation, the offenders were armed with low rate of fire/reload firearms.

Access to illicit firearms in Australia, especially quality pistols and semi-automatic long arms, is limited. And as such, illicit firearm ownership is cost prohibitive for most. During a recent interview, a senior police officer told me that in Australia ‘even good crooks have a hard time getting quality firearms in Australia’.

Put simply, the provision of rifles to Australia’s frontline police officers is premature based on the threat environment. Arguably, the humble service pistol remains more than appropriate for the job at hand.

Despite Douglas’ claims to the contrary, I don’t believe that active shooter tactics have any implications for Australia’s time-tested community policing models. At its heart, community policing is about collaboratively working with the community to proactively solve crime problems. Active shooter training and community policing strategies operate in a complementary manner in a range of jurisdictions in Canada, UK, and US.

Douglas finishes his article with a general call to arms for all of Australia’s law enforcement agencies. But his approach needs to account for the specific roles and responsibilities for each agency. For instance, Australian Border Force personnel are armed for personal protection and, beyond detector dogs, don’t have ‘airport patrol duties’—that’s the responsibility of the Australian Federal Police.

One of the first lessons from the Paris attacks for Australian policymakers was that, in light of a rising domestic terror threat, our active shooter police response capability needs to be rapidly enhanced. But that enhancement needs to occur among our first responders: general duties police. The widespread adoption of this training in non-front-line police is unnecessary and costly.

Australian police use the active shooter response for their specialised tactical units. Australia’s state, territory and federal police leaders recognise that general duties officers need that type of training. Those leaders have advised that they’re on a path to increase the training of frontline officers in this potentially lifesaving method.