What we must learn from Munich?
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We can’t go even a couple of days without yet another instance of mass violence. On Friday, it was a shooting in the center of Munich, Germany. An 18-year-old gunman of German-Iranian nationality killed 10 people.

The motive remains unclear, but what is clear is that this latest instance of violence will impact how police respond to such incidents.

The 1999 Columbine High School shooting transformed established strategies by Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Until that incident, SWAT responses routinely moved to stabilize a situation, hoping to communicate with the assailant(s) via negotiators in an effort to resolve the incident without further loss of life or neutralizing the attacker. The way the Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris conducted their attack required SWAT teams to train for “active shooters,” seeking out assailants and diminishing their capacity to continue their assault.

The next major tactical paradigm shift occurred after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based Islamic militant organization) engaged in a coordinated attack across the city. Armed with automatic weapons and grenades, they targeted public areas including a café, hotel, cinema, hospital and Jewish community center. The terrorists moved from location to location, engaging in 12 coordinated attacks, removing the ability for responding law enforcement and military teams to pin them down. They held the city hostage for four days. All but one of the attackers was killed, but not before the assailants killed 164 people and wounded more than 300 others.

In response to the Mumbai attacks, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) developed the Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities (MACTAC) training protocol.  The training expanded traditional responses to single events through the development of dynamic squads with specific cross-training to engage in “assault, support, rescue and force protection missions.” Today, the squads use small-unit infantry tactics to immediately apply pressure on assailants, seeking them out to control and mitigate the threat as quickly as possible.

That training has been adopted across the nation and the world, and may have been implemented in the law enforcement response to active shooters armed with explosives during the Charlie Hebdo and “13-11” Paris attacks, as well as in San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge—and now Munich.

The city “lockdown” dynamic (which we saw in Munich) became most noticeable after the Boston Marathon bombings. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated bombs near the finish line of the race, and the subsequent manhunt and shootings placed the city in a “shelter-in-place” status for four days. This led to criticism; some felt that step was an overreaction to the threat. But there was also criticism that there had not been a city lockdown when former LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner went on his shooting rampage in 2013.

Munich, however, has now introduced another component in law enforcement tactical response to an active shooter: social media. Images of the Munich shooting were revealed over social media before the suspect was located, which led to speculation that there were as many as three attackers. In a brilliant response, German law enforcement began tweeting in German, English, French and Turkish, asking citizens not to post videos of the incident. A hashtag was created to provide direction for those who had sheltered in place and were subsequently stranded, not knowing if the event had been terminated or continued to develop.

Cities coming under siege by heavily armed assailants moving from location to location require multifaceted considerations. These events will continue to occur, and agencies will have to work closely with citizens and the media.

If there is one truth about securing a free society, it is that threats are never static. Adversaries always adapt, and new factors are always emerging. It’s what makes law enforcement such a difficult job. Even as we intelligently evolve to keep up with threats to the public, there is no such thing as a “usual active shooter.” They are always, in part, something we haven’t seen before. 

Dr. Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE.


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