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“Active Shooter” – Words Create Perception

Posted on 8/16/11 9:30 AM

Stories about deranged gunman targeting innocent civilians have become all too familiar. Tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the most recent events in Norway serve to remind us of the danger these offenders represent. Humans have a particular process of understanding and that understanding begins with “naming” a thing or an event. Several years ago, Law Enforcement named the perpetrators of these tragic assaults, “Active Shooters.” The phrase provides a manner in which to differentiate this action from other actions that result in homicide.

As defined an Active Shooter is a “suspect or assailant whose activity is immediately causing death and serious injury,” and whereas “the threat is not contained.” Loss prevention professionals must, under the category of “safety,” help prepare their company to respond to a potential Active Shooter event. Names, however, create perceptions, and although Law Enforcement has coined a phrase that serves their understanding and response, the LP community must use terms that define our understanding and response. This may seem like a small thing, but in fact, the use of Active Shooter creates a perception of response that is not consistent with the manner that law enforcement responds. Words create perceptions, as professionals we must be sensitive to the perceptions we create, and we must ensure we create the correct expectations.

Loss Prevention deals with many sensitive subjects. We have a tradition of recognizing that sensitive nature and in the careful selection of the “words” and terms that we use to discuss those topics. In example, we have policies on internal theft, but we publically refer to them as “integrity standards,” or “education and awareness” or “codes of conduct.” These are all very nice ways in which we state, “Employees steal, don’t be one of them.”  Loss Prevention professionals never “interrogate,” we “interview.” We do not conduct “searches” we perform “bag checks.” The terms we use speak more specifically to the manner in which we conduct ourselves. This may seem like semantics, but the terms we use create a perception and they guide our behavior. In the same manner, we should not have an “Active Shooter” policy for the simple reason that we are not law enforcement. A program that is built around the foundation of a law enforcement term does not ensure the safety of our associates.

A gunman with the intent to injure or kill anyone in his line of sight represents an extreme danger. These incidents have the potential to occur in stores, corporate offices, or warehouses. Although rare in occasion, it is a potential threat that needs serious consideration and both preventative and reactive guidelines. The majority of educational seminars suggest two viable courses of action by the public; Run or hide. The current position of law enforcement is that there are three potential outcomes to these situations. The gunman surrenders, the gunman commits suicide, or the police kill the gunman.  In short, the public policy for an Active Shooter event is “if you are not a cop then run or hide until we terminate the threat.” Consequently, a company does not need an “Active Shooter” policy because by definition it is not a policy at all.

Active Shooter image resized 600What if the threat is a knife, a baseball bat, or a violent physical confrontation? Do those require different policies simply because the assailant is not an “active shooter?” The obvious answer is “no.” This is why companies need “threat reaction” policies that encompass the types of incidents our employees may encounter.

An effective loss prevention strategy integrates the recommendations from Law Enforcement with the unique needs and culture of the business they support. These safety policies must deal with the proactive, the reactive, and the after-actions of the company. They should include clear guidelines and responsibilities to ensure that in the event of a tragedy, everyone is working from the same plan. This is not to suggest we ignore the excellent recommendations made by law enforcement. Instead, we should incorporate those recommendations into our full plan for treatment. Since the actual event is only one portion of that treatment, we should not build a false perception by labeling the entire process with terminology law enforcement uses to label their process. In other words “Active Shooter” does not fully nor effectively define our roles and responsibilities because if we follow law enforcement recommendations then our employees will not be a part of the Active Shooter incident…, which is after all our main objective.

One might argue that since loss prevention professionals’ interactions cross over into interactions with law enforcement and the public that adopting their nomenclature is appropriate. That using the same terms improves communication because it clearly defines the subject matter. In private conversations, this may be true, but publically we create the wrong perception when we discuss our “Active Shooter” policy.

Loss prevention is not equipped to deal with an active shooter and in truth; the likelihood of an LP representative being on scene is very small. We should not use a term that creates an expectation that is not realistic. Law enforcement is equipped, will be on scene, and will have the tools in which to terminate the threat. Therefore, our policy “names” and “terms” should clearly define our role, and that is a role of preparation, safety, and after-action. Somewhere in those guidelines can be our “Active Shooter” advice, which is two words- Run or Hide.

When employees and customers lives are threatened, a good loss prevention strategy should be defined broadly and use terms that reinforce the primary goal, which is the preservation of life. 

Written by Steven May, CEO/President of LP Innovations

To learn more about how you can prepare your associates for these types of violent acts, here is a link to the Department of Homeland Security.

Do you agree/disagree or have a comment about this article? We want to hear your thoughts about this topic.

Topics: training and awareness, policies and procedures, Loss Prevention program and development

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