Active Shooting Trainings Teach the U.S. Police to ‘Stop the Killing’

During an active shooting situation, American law enforcement officers are taught that their response should focus on two principles: first “stop the killing,” and then “stop the dying,” according to a training program based in Texas that is considered the national standard. The response should center on neutralizing the gunman, the program says, and then on getting medical aid to anyone who has been injured.

As more questions emerged on Friday about the police response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, experts described those principles as the central tenets for handling such circumstances — a set of protocols that have evolved significantly over the last two decades but are widely accepted by law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Officers are taught to enter quickly in small formations — or even with only one or two officers — and act to contain and neutralize any gunman. “DO NOT waste valuable time searching areas where you know there is no violence occurring,” officers are told in a training bulletin from the Louisville Metro Police Department. “Go straight to the source of the violence.”

Rescues, the thinking goes, should begin after the gunman is stopped, or if there are additional officers to carry it out.

If the gunfire stops, the situation may change to a barricade or hostage situation, which calls for a different, slower approach, experts say. The priority becomes making contact with the aggressor and starting negotiations. Although hostage situations can require complex judgment calls — particularly if trapped victims are wounded and need treatment — law enforcement experts say negotiating has repeatedly saved lives.

From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting

Commentary from Times Opinion on the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Michelle Goldberg: As we come to terms with yet another tragedy, the most common sentiment is a bitter acknowledgment that nothing is going to change.Nicholas Kristof, a former Times Opinion columnist: Gun policy is complicated and politically vexing, and it won’t make everyone safe. But it could reduce gun deaths.Roxane Gay: For all our cultural obsession with civility, there is nothing more uncivilized than the political establishment’s acceptance of the constancy of mass shootings.Jay Caspian Kang: By sharing memes with each new tragedy, we have created a museum of unbearable sorrow, increasingly dense with names and photos of the deceased.

Experts said that situations often are fluid and may transition repeatedly from an active shooting scenario to a hostage situation. Questions about that distinction appeared to be at issue in the questions emerging about the police handling of the shootings in Uvalde.

On Friday, Steven C. McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said in a news conference that the commander overseeing operations in Uvalde had judged the situation to be one of a “barricaded subject” — “with no more children at risk” — at the point at which police were present and ready to burst into the classroom.

“Of course it was not the right decision,” Mr. McCraw said. “It was a wrong decision, period. There’s no excuse for that.”

He continued, “When there’s an active shooter, the rules change.”

The best practices for such shootings have evolved considerably since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, when officers were trained to maintain a perimeter and wait for a tactical team.

“Columbine changed everything because they realized that although it was not a bad plan to wait, people will get killed while you’re waiting,” said Robert J. Louden, a professor emeritus of criminal justice and homeland security at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.

Some experts have suggested that officers in Uvalde did not act sooner because they were afraid of being shot themselves — and two officers suffered graze wounds on the scene. At the news conference, Mr. McCraw said, “The incident commander inside believed they needed more equipment and more officers to do a tactical breach at that point.”

Ashley Heiberger, a retired police captain who now does officer trainings, said that departments vary widely on what they require of officers in dangerous situations. Some expect them to head toward gunfire, while others give more discretion. “Most agency policy likely does not require you to go on a suicide mission,” he said. “But I would think that most officers would feel a moral obligation — protecting lives is your highest duty.”