Share story

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 to discuss shootings such as those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.

The traditional advice to the public has been, “Don’t get involved; call 911,” Wexler said.

Wexler and others noted the change echoes a transformation in police procedures that began after the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, when some departments began telling officers who arrived first on a scene to act immediately rather than waiting for backup. Since then, 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.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“We used to sit outside and set up a perimeter and wait for the SWAT team,” 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 gunfire.

Research on mass shootings in the past decade has bolstered the idea that people at an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued by the police, who in many cases cannot get there fast enough to prevent the loss of life.

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 3 minutes. “But you see that about half the attacks are over before the police get there,” said J. Pete Blair, director for research at the university’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center and an author of the research, which is set to be published this year.

In the absence of a police presence, how victims responded often made the difference between life and death, Blair said. In 16 of the attacks studied, civilians stopped the perpetrator, subduing him in 13 cases and shooting him in three cases. In other attacks, civilians have obstructed or delayed the gunman until police arrived.

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, professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, told students to jump out the second-story window while he held classroom door shut, delaying Cho. 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.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.