Reporters aren’t used to being treated with ceremony or solemnity, but as several dozen of us filed into the auditorium at One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan last week, along with HR and private security professionals, we saw an honor guard waiting in the wings. A contingent of New York Police Department officers were kitted out in their dress uniforms, carrying the American, New York State, and September 11th Memorial flags. One held a vintage carbine, the kind used in parades. A sergeant sang the national anthem in dulcet tones as portraits of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, our fellow journalists slain during what was supposed to be a fluffy, early-morning news broadcast in western Virginia, were projected on a screen above the stage. New York’s Finest were saluting New York’s Schlubbiest.
We were there to hear from several of the department’s Counterterrorism Division’s experts on the state of active shooters, the first training of its kind specifically for media. While the shooting and media spectacle in Virginia acutely horrified the fourth estate — whose members tend to think of themselves as something like Marvel Universe’s Watchers, observers of human insanity and misery but rarely party to it — it came as little surprise to the NYPD. As the law enforcement experts saw it, some kind of live-broadcast orchestrated active shooter scenario has seemed inevitable since about 2007, around the time social media and uploading homemade video to the Internet became truly accessible to wide swaths of people.
“Since the Virginia Tech case, where the shooter recorded his own video and sent it to TV networks, we have discussed when we’re going to see a shooting livestreamed, or on live video,” said John J. Miller, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism. “We’ve crossed that bridge.”
In practical terms, he made little distinction between the particularly American type of shooter — disgruntled, adrift loners, attacking centers of leisure or work removed from any larger conflict — and groups of ideologically committed terrorists overseas who’ve rampaged through Tunisian beach resorts, the offices of a French satirical newspaper, and Mumbai’s grandest hotel. Whatever a shooter’s motive may be, it doesn’t make much difference to the civilian scrambling for safety or the police officers rushing to respond.
But Miller also identified a trend toward increasing sophistication in active shooter scenarios, both in lethality and (I shudder to use the term in this context) media strategy. For many recent attackers, the spectacle — its documentation before, during, and after the shots — was just as important as the guns and killings themselves. The modern mass shooter uses the terror of killing not just to right some perceived wrong, but to transform themselves. “There’s a new identification of self as shooter,” Miller explained. “It’s not unusual to find they got dressed up and photographed themselves in ‘warrior mode.’ There’s also preoccupation with other shooters. In many of these situations, you’ll see they’ve studied other cases, number of kills, lots of internet research.” Vester Flanagan, the Virginia shooter, placed himself squarely in this twisted tradition. He wrote in a manifesto sent to other TV news stations that he was influenced by Virginia Tech shooter Seung–Hui Cho. “That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got…just sayin.”
After Miller finished his portion of the afternoon, two detectives laid out in detail just how soft journalists are as targets. We were shown a video made at the NYPD’s Bronx shooting range. A firearm specialist tested a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver, a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun, and an AK-47 style rifle on pieces of office furniture. The desks, cubicle partitions, and filing cabinets that surround the typical media worker provide little to no cover from an armed assailant. Only the metal filing cabinet provided any measure of cover, though the AK-47 made short work of that, its steel-tipped rounds easily passing through the multiple metal layers that would have (maybe) stopped a hollow-point bullet or buckshot pellet. The assembled journalists watched in silence. As to whether we played it close to the chest out of shock or stoic sangfroid? No comment.
A pamphlet laid out our options should we find ourselves in an active shooter scenario: ABC, or Avoid, Barricade, Confront. It was easy enough to imagine high-tailing it out of a building or huddling behind chairs blocking doors, but that “Confront” section gave little comfort. “There is no single procedure that can be recommended in this situation,” it began. Given the high level of coordination and training police needed to respond to active shooters, above and beyond the standard Academy curriculum, it was hard to imagine myself or most of my fellow hacks rising to the challenge.
One more bullet point under the “Confront” heading stood out: “Attempt to quickly overpower the individual with force in the most violent manner possible.” We were asked what office supplies could make do as weapons. The answers volunteered did not inspire confidence: a smartphone? A cup of coffee? After an awkward silence, one metro reporter sitting in first row looked at his pen. A pen? “Pens, yes!” A detective exclaimed, agreeing that writing implements likely offer the most stopping power of any element in the reporter’s arsenal.
The little John Lott sitting on my shoulder wondered about other options. Inevitably after each high-profile shooting, someone quickly wonders if the victims could have saved themselves and prevented more bloodshed if only they’d been armed. But research has cast serious doubt on firearms’ comparative effectiveness for self-defense. As the discussion wore on, it became clear that the police didn’t truly expect us reporters to marshal tactical expertise or deadly force in the face of a killer.
I asked if the NYPD considered the Good Guy With a Gun scenario when developing their active shooter protocols. Deputy Commissioner Miller replied with a flat no — it didn’t enter into their thinking, at least not when considering the civilians in the department’s jurisdiction. “There are a minimal number of carry permits, business permits, or even legal guns in New York,” he said. He allowed that things might be different for the police who dealt with the assault on the Garland, Texas, show of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad: “It’s not like Texas where two terrorists can show up to an art show with two AK-47s and multiple magazines and still be outgunned. I love that about Texas.”
It was hard not to take away from the presentation that dumb luck still provided the best chance of surviving a mass shooting. That included the dumb luck that we happened to be employed in New York City. One reporter asked Miller how the department had dealt with the most recent local incident to resemble an active shooter scenario: The late August killing in which a one-time whistleblower fatally shot a security guard at the federal building in SoHo before turning the gun on himself. Miller said that was more of a murder-suicide, though he noted that the shooter had brought multiple guns — it was anyone’s guess why he didn’t go further and kill more.
Miller wasn’t interested in speculating. He just said that, for whatever reason, in the country’s largest metropolis, where “there are lots of targets” to entice a mass shooter, it “almost never” happens here.