‘Active shooter’ tactics face scrutiny after LAPD shooting

The hectic 911 calls began coming late Thursday morning from a Burlington clothing store in North Hollywood. Several calls said a man threatened people inside the store, either with a bike lock or a gun. At least one caller reported that shots had been fired.

Los Angeles police were dispatched, and at noon a small group of towed officers drove up the double escalator to the second floor, where they encountered and quickly shot 24-year-old Daniel Elena-Lopez, as pictured in bodycam footage released. by LAPD Monday.

Elena-Lopez was killed, as was Valentina Orellana-Peralta, a 14-year-old trying on clothes in a nearby locker room. A relative said she died in her mother’s arms at the store. The officer opened fire when Elena-Lopez appeared to be moving away from a bloody woman he was attacking. It is unclear if officers knew the suspect did not have a gun.

While the exact tactics used by police on Thursday are still under review, they used in many ways a game book that has come to define police responses to “active shooting” situations in the 22 years since the shooting at Columbine High School , which left 13 dead in Colorado.

In a mass shooting scenario, officers rushing in to kill or arrest a shooter can reduce the potential death toll for a heavily armed assailant. But in cases like the one in Burlington, where suspects turn out not to be armed with a gun, the tactic raises serious questions.

The tragedy has sparked outrage and debate over how police should respond to such incidents – especially when it is unclear whether a suspect is actually armed and shooting.

For years, the standard approach was for police to surround an active shooting scene, assess the situation and try to negotiate in hopes of avoiding a violent showdown. Today, police are trained to kill or arrest any shooter before taking other actions, including assisting victims.

The thinking, experts say, is that by neutralizing threats, officers minimize further losses while allowing EMTs and doctors to help the wounded.

While that approach can be beneficial when confronting an active shooter, it has serious drawbacks. Last week, Valentina’s death raised serious questions about the cost and benefits of what some proponents call “shoot first” police work.

Today’s tactical doctrine is best summed up as “stop killing before we stop the dying,” said Sid Heal, a retired LA County sheriff’s chief and current chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Assn.

“We have been proactive. The general practice is that we take [an active shooter] under fire at the earliest opportunity, ”he said. “It is our nature to go to the wounded. But the problem is that he can kill them as fast as we can save them.”

It is still not clear if officers followed the LAPD’s protocols in how they handled the incident, and it will be the subject of further investigations by the department.

Travis Norton, Head of California Assn. from the Tactical Officers’ negotiation team said officers need to be better trained about the decisions they face in active shooting situations.

“It’s all training and education. Training is how, and education is why. We are well educated and poorly educated. We know how to do things, but we are not good at explaining why,” said Norton, who has traveled far and wide to analyze police response to about 20 active shooting incidents, including the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.San Bernardino attacks and the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre.

He said that while it may be more obvious how officers should respond to incidents where there are live shots when they arrive at the scene, “it is not so cut and dry” when there are no shots on their arrival.

“Everyone wants a checklist – they want 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – but that’s not how these things work. You have to assess the situation and act on the context of the problem you are facing. facing, ”said Norton, who is pursuing PhD studies at USC with a focus on law enforcement response to such incidents.

And yet, he said, his research has repeatedly found that breakdowns in several key areas contribute to less effective law enforcement responses. Most critical are leadership issues, which occur in 93% of active shooting incidents, Norton said.

But perhaps most important is decision-making. The first choice of how to react to a presumed active shooting situation may have more effect on the outcome than almost anything else, he said.

“It’s great that you’re a good shooter, but what about the decision if you were to shoot at all in the first place?” said Norton. “We should spend as much training time on decision-making as we spend on learning to shoot.”

Valentina’s killing sent shock waves across not only Los Angeles but also Chile, where the girl came from. And in many corners, there were angry questions about police tactics.

“How can they shoot crazy that way?” asked Graciela Cornejo, 70, who lives near the store, in an interview Friday. “They’re trained for all this. I just can not understand.”

Ron Gochez, an experienced community organizer and high school history teacher in south Los Angeles, said he believes the incident would have been handled differently in a more affluent, white neighborhood where police are less likely to quickly open fire in a store filled with holiday shoppers.

“I realize it was a dangerous situation,” Gochez said, “but the way the police do their business in our community shows a total disregard for our lives.”

In addition to Valentina’s shooting, he cited the LAPD’s forged detonation of illegal fireworks in southern LA this summer, which triggered an explosion that injured 17 people and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes, businesses and vehicles.

“Police behavior is only night and day, depending on what zip code they are in,” Gochez said. “Their behavior would not be the same in more affluent societies.”

In a statement Monday, the League of United Latin called on American Citizens to “conduct an immediate and thorough investigation” into the shooting.

“Everything in their academy training should teach them to consider the worst case scenario before pulling their service revolvers,” said Domingo Garcia, the league’s national president. “Equally worrying is that this incident is only the latest in a rash of recent LAPD shootings involving Latinos.”

Both the LAPD and the California Department of Justice have opened investigations into the shooting in Burlington. Several Los Angeles City Council members have also called for a review.

The tragedy comes at a time when LAPD shootings are under increasing attention. The shootings from Los Angeles police officers increased this year after years of decline.

An LAPD estimate earlier this year, when police had shot 30 people, showed that about a third of them showed signs of mental illness at the time. In recent years, officers have also shot suspects at much longer distances than they perceived them to be in relation to themselves, and when they were unarmed, investigations show.

Chris Grollnek, a retired SWAT officer and tactical expert who was involved in a 2010 incident in McKinney, Texas, in which an attacker fired more than 100 shots outside a police station, said the increase in active shootings in recent years has helped spur a shift in tactics and recognition that the police “must deal with the aggressor and stop him as soon as possible” in order to minimize the losses.

According to Grollnek, investigations into incidents involving active shooters have shown that an attacker can kill as many as four victims in one minute. The average police response time in major cities is about two to three minutes, he said, creating a difficult scenario where officers have little time to react after arriving at the scene.

“They are in an almost impossible situation,” he said of the responding officers.

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Nathan Solis and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

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