American Police Learn Conflicting Lessons Of Terrorist Attacks

Nov 16, 2015
Originally published on November 30, 2015 2:57 pm

How prepared are American police for something like the Paris attacks?

On one level — experience with active shooters — American police unfortunately have more experience than police in any other country. Figures vary, but USA Today has counted more than 200 "mass killings" in the U.S. since 2006.

Much of the training of American officers is built on lessons learned from the 1999 Columbine High School attack, which taught police to be aggressive in active-shooter situations. Instead of just securing a shooting scene to wait for tactical units, police are now told to enter as quickly as possible and disrupt the attack.

But the Paris attacks don't fit the Columbine mold. When American police look at Paris, they think of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India. Instead of focusing on one target, the terrorists there attacked several sites in a coordinated effort that confused and confounded local police.

"After Mumbai, there's the potential for more than one scene occurring simultaneously," says Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.

Lomax says Mumbai inspired a new training model called "Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities." It emphasizes trying to get a global view of what's happening as quickly as possible. "You might not want to send all your assets to a scenario until you gather further intelligence," Lomax says.

"There's really no place it can't happen," says Maj. Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department. He says earlier this year, his department did a "table-top exercise" — a kind of bureaucratic simulation — to prepare for just this kind of scenario. "We looked specifically at potential multiple active-shooter events, to try to visualize how we would, as a department, as a city entity, address those attacks," he says.

Just a few weeks later, the Dallas Police Department headquarters came under attack from a man who both shot at officers and deployed pipe bombs.

Lt. Tracy Frazzano of the Montclair, New Jersey, police has been thinking about a Mumbai-style attack for the last couple of years, both in her graduate studies and during a stint with the counter-terrorism unit of the Department of Homeland Security. She's an advocate of what she calls "cross-training": making sure police are trained and equipped to save lives with compression bandages and other paramedic equipment; and to prepare emergency medical services to go into areas that may still be dangerous.

"We're now talking about law enforcement escorting in EMS and fire [fighters] into what we call 'warm zone' areas so they can start medical treatment on victims and save more lives," she says.

American police departments are looking to social media to try to get a quicker understanding of what they're up against. Twitter and other platforms can draw a map of coordinated attacks, but that kind of information can also be overwhelming. That's why some police departments have subscribed to data analysis services that can filter the flood of social media that flows from an attack. They would also rely on the "fusion centers," the federally-sponsored regional information-sharing hubs set up after September 11, 2001.

The Paris attacks may also shift the debate over what some people call the "militarization" of local police. Since the Ferguson protests, American police departments have been criticized for stockpiling military-grade weapons and gear, which often end up being used for raids on low-threat targets, such as small-time drug dealers. Many protesters say local police shouldn't even have gear such as automatic rifles and armored cars.

"I believe what comes out of this is there is the need for this type of equipment," says Lomax. The question, he says, is how the heavy equipment should be deployed.

In Dallas, Geron says he doesn't think Paris will undermine the lessons learned by American police departments from the backlash over the deployment of military-grade hardware during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

"You have to be very judicious on what equipment you keep, what equipment you train with and what equipment you have access to," he says. "You have to be cognizant of what are the real threats to your community."

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Now local police departments are reviewing how they prepare against a potential terror attack. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says timing is everything.


BILL BRATTON: We operate on the assumption, if we have one of these attacks, their intention is to kill everybody that they get their hands on, so we will move very quickly to move in to stop that threat.

INSKEEP: NPR's Martin Kaste reports on how police have prepared.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When American police heard about the Paris attacks this weekend, a lot of them thought of Mumbai - that is, the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. Dallas Police Maj. Max Geron says even before Paris, he considered that attack a kind of wake-up call.

MAX GERON: It illustrated how small, coordinated teams with a little bit of tactical planning could create havoc and a lot of death and destruction in a very short period of time.

KASTE: Geron says earlier this year, the Dallas Police did a tabletop simulation to practice for just this kind of thing - active shooter attacks at multiple locations. Another person who thought of Mumbai this weekend is Mark Lomax. He runs the National Tactical Officers Association. It's the association of SWAT officers. His organization has been promoting a new training model for countering multiple-assault terror attacks. It emphasizes a kind of big-picture battlefield awareness.

MARK LOMAX: We're looking at intelligence, looking at response, looking at tactical resources and deployment - that you may not want to send all your assets to a scenario.

KASTE: Or at least, don't send in all your assets until you know that you're not facing other simultaneous attacks, he says. Another thing that's come out of the Mumbai example is the notion of cross-training - that is, in the middle of an attack, the cops should be equipped to act like medics. For example, they should carry compression bandages and try to stop victims' bleeding when possible. Cross-training also means preparing the medics to go into dangerous areas normally reserved for the cops. Tracy Frazzano is a police lieutenant in New Jersey who's worked on these ideas with the Department of Homeland Security.

TRACY FRAZZANO: We now are talking about law enforcement escorting in EMS and fire into these - what we call these warm zone areas so that they can start medical treatment on our victims and save more lives.

KASTE: Of course, the lessons don't all come from Mumbai. In the years since the Columbine High School massacre, American police have learned a lot from the grim litany of attacks by American-born gunmen. But Frazzano says Mumbai and Paris have demonstrated that the traditional model of how these attacks work has become outmoded.

FRAZZANO: When we talk about active shooter - I don't even think that terminology even works anymore because you're not responding anymore just to an active shooter.

KASTE: She prefers the term hybrid targeted violence. It's a mouthful, but she says it reminds police that when they rush in, they have to be thinking about bombs, booby-traps and other gunmen. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.