Police Response to Active Shooter Events: How Officers See Their Role

AuthorScott W. Phillips
Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Police Response to
2020, Vol. 23(2) 262–279
! The Author(s) 2020
Active Shooter Events:
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119896654
How Officers See
Their Role
Scott W. Phillips1
“Active shooter” incidents and the police response to them receive considerable
attention. There is a public expectation that officers should immediately enter active
shooter events and engage the suspects. To explore how POLICE view their role in
active shooter events, a vignette research design was used to gather opinion data
from a convenience sample of police officers in two states. Respondents who
evaluated vignettes describing a police officer’s response to an active shooter sce-
nario clearly preferred options other than immediately entering the building. Policy
implications and directions for future research are discussed.
active shooter incident, police behavior, vignette research design, police culture
A contemporary issue that has drawn a substantial amount of public and police
attention is the “active shooter” incident and the expected response from police
officers. Active shooter events are incidents involving an individual who is
“actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and pop-
ulated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms(s) and there is no pattern
1State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Scott W. Phillips, State University of New York, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222, USA.
Email: phillisw@buffalostate.edu

or method to their selection of victims” (U.S. Department of Homeland
Security, 2008). Examples of these events include the Columbine High School
Shooting in Colorado in 1999, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL, in 2017, and
the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in
February 2018. While policing research has examined many activities of police
officers, such as their use of force or arrest decisions, there is an absence of
scholarship exploring the police officer’s viewpoints regarding their expected
response to these rare and dangerous incidents.
Historically, policing places a high priority on an officer’s safety. Safety is
considered a primary cultural dimension (Crank, 1998; Herbert, 1998), and
substantial portions of police training are intended to protect officers from
danger (Barker, 1998; Reaves, 2016). Despite the deep connection of safety to
a police officer’s working world, contemporary professional and public expect-
ations of police behavior have changed in the face of active shooter events.
When a police officer responds to an active shooter event, officers are “expected
to stop the killing of innocent people” by reacting quickly and confronting the
shooter (Martaindale & Blair, 2019, p. 346). The difficulty is how to balance the
goals of officers’ safety with saving innocent lives.
This exploratory research fills a gap in policing scholarship by studying offi-
cer viewpoints concerning their contemporary role in society when handling a
specific type of event. First, it examines the police officers’ opinions regarding
their behavior when responding to an active shooter incident. The potential for
danger is a ubiquitous consideration in policing and a significant focus of their
training. Police officers are trained to take precautions to avoid injury or harm.
This precaution training is engrained in policing culture (Barker, 1998; Crank,
1998; Herbert, 1998). Missing in the scholarship is the perspective of street-level
police officers when handling a call that is likely to include a personal risk of
serious injury or death. Understanding how officers view their role in these
incidents can help police administrators determine the type of policies and train-
ing that ensure officers appropriately react in these situations.
Literature Review
The Police Role in Society
The police role in society engenders beliefs about their assumed or assigned
character. The police and the public hold expectations about police officers’
behavior and what they do or should do in different situations. For example,
when citizens see flashing blue and red lights in their rear-view mirror, they
likely assume the officer will issue a ticket. When citizens call the police about
a problem, the officer is assigned the role of problem solver, with the citizen
expecting the officer to resolve the situation. These two specific examples are
only a few of the many roles that are assigned or assumed of the police to reach

Police Quarterly 23(2)
their overall social control function (Burton, Frank, Langworthy, & Barker,
1993). What is less clear is the specific tactic best suited to satisfy their expected
social roles. Wilson (1968) suggested that policing used law enforcement meth-
ods (e.g., arrest) to control disorder. Rumbaut and Bittner (1979), however,
argued that order maintenance and peacekeeping tactics was the unacknowl-
edged primary practices of policing.
The police role also includes providing services to the public (Goldstein,
1977). Some scholars suggested that policing itself was unaware of the impor-
tance of its service role as an avenue for keeping people safe (Terris, 1967).
Flanagan (1985) stated, “it is apparent that, to some degree, positive public
attitudes toward the local police are inextricably bound to noncrime-related serv-
ices that most police departments provide” (p. 19). Formalizing services into the
police role, however, is not a common component in most state legislation
(Burton et al., 1993; Cortright, McCann, Willits, Hemmens, & Stohr, 2018).
Recent studies indicate a shift away from the peacekeeping and service roles
that are part of a community policing approach. State statutes are moving the
police toward emphasizing law enforcement. This shift is concerning for some
scholars. Cortright et al. (2018, p. 21) argued that state legislation in a post-
Ferguson environment emphasized the warrior mind-set by codifying law
enforcement priorities in policing. Formally permitting a law enforcement
approach might minimize an officer’s concern for dealing with minor crimes
and disorders, which are the most common events handled by police officers.
Further, expectations for police behavior can be situationally based. The ter-
rorist attacks in 2001 drew attention to the role that local law enforcement
agencies had when responding to these types of events (Burruss, Giblin, &
Schafer, 2010). The expected policing role in a “homeland security” era is
safety, antiterrorism, counterterrorism, with the criminal law as part of a pro-
active enforcement strategy (Oliver, 2006, p. 50). Still, not all officers internalize
a strong law enforcement role. A sense of public engagement and being a pos-
itive figure in the community contributes to their recognition of procedural
justice in their work (Deuchar, Fallik, & Crichlow, 2018).
Dealing with dangerous incidents is an expected role of police work. Officers
are characterized as being “outgunned.” This thinking justified police access to
surplus military equipment to handle events that were considered inherently
dangerous (Bove & Gavrilova, 2017). Bittner (1970) argued that the ability of
a police officer to use force “means above all making use of the capacity and
authority to overpower resistance” (p. 40). Slotkin (1992) similarly asserted that
the use of violence is acceptable to defend and enforced American values. The
use of coercive authority by police officers extends to their ability to use deadly
force, which Manning (1980) argued was “a commonsense aspect of the police
role” (p. 135).
The contemporary recognition of active shooter events is a natural extension
of the type of dangerous incident, warranting a potentially deadly response by

police officers. For example, the street-level officers who arrived at the shooting
at Columbine High School in 1999 followed policy by securing the perimeter of
the building and requesting a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. This
standard approach existed because it was believed that street officers were not
equipped or trained to deal with a barricaded suspect or hostage situations.
Active shooter events were entirely different, and waiting for SWAT was con-
sidered unacceptable by the public (Klinger & Grossman, 2001). That is, where a
barricaded suspect or hostage incident benefited from a deliberate response, an
active shooter event involves a person who is in the process of killing people as
rapidly as possible. This immediate danger demands a quick police response.
In the post-Columbine work environment, police agencies across the United
States began developing new protocols expecting street-level patrol officers to
work as small ad hoc tactical units. These teams were to enter a situation and
engage the active shooter (Blair, Nichols, Burns, & Curnutt, 2016; Martaindale
& Blair, 2019). Recently, a “Model Policy” promulgated by the International
Association of Chiefs of Police (2018) included the stance that even a single
police officer should “locate the suspect(s) in the most expeditious manner
The expectations of a single or small number of police officers entering an
inherently dangerous situation counter various facets of police training and
culture. From the time a new officer starts policing, “the primary emphasis in
academy training is on conveying a sense of the physical danger of the job”
(Barker, 1998, p. 67). The academy “encourages a...

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