First a CW. The video linked is security footage live streamed of the church service where two attendees and the gunman were killed. Please be aware that the video contains footage of the attack and that this post is a breakdown on what happened and what lessons we can learn from it. Exit from this post if you believe the footage and discussion of the event is to difficult to view.
Watch the video in a separate tab to analyze the lessons I’ve outlined in this post.
In the town of White Settlement, TX a man armed with what appears to be a pistol grip shotgun, killed two members of the West Freeway Church. The whole encounter unfolded in a total of 13 seconds with the exchange of fire between the gunman and the security team lasting less than 4 seconds. Footage captured is gruesome and show how ugly violent encounters can be, as well as how quick they can unfold. This footage is especially relevant to anyone doing security for a house of worship or volunteering to help secure a community event.
There are several lessons that I’ve gleaned from the footage.
Reporting has stated that the church security team was already aware of the individual and keeping an eye on him. In the video he appears not to be dressed in the same manner as everyone else and was alone. The security team has to strike a balance between vigilance and also creating a welcoming atmosphere for attendees. You will have to do the same if you do security for your meetings. Opposite of racial profiling, which is biased, enacts racism, and actually prevents you from accurately identifying a real threat because your are living out prejudices rather then responding to reality, situational profiling means that you are attuned to group aesthetics, verbals, para-verbals, and nonverbal communication norms in a given situation while paying attention to those who don’t quite fit the mold. Maybe its the way someone is dressed, or how they manage space between them and others, the tone and inflection of how they communicate with others. From the footage its fairly obvious that a man in a long black pulled-up hoodie sitting alone in the church is not quite a fit for that setting. In a different church that may be a norm, but not here. Whatever the situation, security teams should work to attune themselves to folks that stick out, communicate that to their team, and strategically position people that are part of the security team in a way that enables them to quickly respond should something happen without bringing attention to themselves. It does appear that the church security team did in fact do this. They had one security person behind him, another to the right of him in a church seat, and a third (who ended up putting a head shot on him) also behind and to the right of him. It’s also been reported that there was a second person, who I’m not able to identify in the video, that put a shot on the gunman. In all he had at least three security people within 10-15 yards of him, and likely a fourth.
Obviously situational profiling and strategic positioning alone is not enough. The biggest impression I got from the video is that the security team failed to respond to pre-attack indicators once the gunman stood up and had what seemed to be an exchange with the usher. From the time that the shooter got up from his seat and squared his shoulders on the usher, folks in the security team should have been closing distance. They should have certainly responded when he leaned forward and had words with the usher. Unfortunately the first victim on the security team remained seated during that exchange and did not stand up until the gunman was pulling his weapon. It’s hard to see, but behind the liveleak logo at the top left of the screen, you can see the man who put a shot on gunman seconds after the shooting started. He also had quite a delayed response to all the pre-attack indicators. Perhaps he was paying attention to something else, or assumed that his other security team member was going to handle it. It’s been reported that he was the leader of the church security team, and being that they already had suspicion about the gunman, its difficult to understand why he wasn’t paying close attention when he was in the loop. In a perfect response he and the closest security team member would have been paying attention and closed in on the would be shooter as soon as he showed aggression.
Of course its easy to diagnose and pick apart a response after the fact. I’m not blaming the victims here, however we do need to gain an understanding in areas of improvement and ask ourselves honestly if we are training ourselves to effectively respond in terrible situations.
The first victim was the security team member sitting next to the usher who was shot moments later. His response struck me in a more profound way than anything else in the video. We have already covered that he didn’t respond to the pre-attack indicators, but he also responded very slowly and casually after the gun was pulled out. As the gun came out he stood up at a casual pace, stood completely upright, looked away from the gunman (perhaps at his drawing arm), didn’t square his shoulders on to the threat, and after struggling to get the gun out finally unholstered. As he brought the gun forward it didn’t appear that he was trying to get his support hand on the gun or even really get it into the fight with any kind of violence of action. From the time the gunman had his weapon pulled out, to the time the security team member had unholstered is firearm, a total of three and a half seconds passed.
This slow response appears to be what’s called normalcy bias. It’s the predisposition of the human brain to solve problems in a default manner. Immanent threats to your life are not common so the brain has to work through its default solutions before it comes to a realistic conclusion, sometimes it might not land in reality. Data from research scientists on normalcy bias state that 70% of people display normalcy bias during disasters. This behavior is seen in many other videos and reports of mass shootings. For example, during the Las Vegas shooting folks defaulted into believing that the sounds of gunshots where fireworks or that the sound system was malfunctioning. In the recent El Paso shooting, victims who survived reported saying out loud, “this is not happening” while the event unfolded. The brain isn’t able to effectively process the anomaly and lands on flat out denial, obfuscation, or easily explainable solutions while it “mills” to process all the data its receiving.
Lots of folks imagine that people would be running everywhere and a mass panic would immediately ensue. If you watch the video again, look at the man in the blue/green sweater and white button up right at the middle of the screen, it appears that he notices the gunman as he is drawing out the shotgun. When the shots begin to ring out he hardly moves, and continues to not move through the whole sequence. You will also notice that the shooter actually got off a third shot that was redirected upwards just as he was killed. If he wasn’t killed in that moment, he would have been shooting right in that mans direction, yet he remains unmoved. That is the brain struggling to quickly process all the terrible data its being presented with. We can’t say for sure whether that’s normalcy bias or just freezing up, but both reactions are things security minded people need to be aware of and overcome. In the Las Vegas shooting, this church shooting, and the Christchurch Massacre in New Zealand, footage clearly shows the crowd laying down rather than taking decisive action.
In some manner normalcy bias this is positive, normalcy bias keeps us from ducking under a car every time we hear a firework or a loud bang. Imagine everyone trying to running from the concession stand during a NFL game because they heard a loud bang they didn’t know all the context around the noise. Its probably pyrotechnics, not a gunman. SO we don’t all stampede and trample each other to get out over nothing. It keeps us from becoming so hyper-vigilant that we negatively impact our daily living. Normalcy bias also prevents mass panic and utter chaos in the moments following a calamity. From a security prospective we need to train for efficient threat recognition and how to overcome normalcy bias.
To overcome normalcy bias you need to train yourself and your team with preparation. Preparations means having an exit plan and a clear set of “trip-wires.” If you see someone pulling a gun what is the protocol or guiding principles for the response? If you hear gunshots but don’t see where its coming from what are your guidelines. Once you have your guidelines you, personally, need to visualize different scenarios and how you need to realistically respond. Visualization creates pathways in the brain to respond effectively in an unprecedented situation so that you aren’t frozen or acting normally to an imminent threat. Better yet, it familiarizes you with unprecedented situations so that they are no longer unprecedented. Deadly threats need to be treated with extreme violence of action, your SOP’s should reflect that and the way you carry yourself needs to be balanced between being a phenomenal and compassionate human during calm times and a ruthless one when its go time. The jump from empathetic and feeling to decisive and brutal isn’t a easy leap, so having clear and ethical tripwires paired with visualization is key for security. At the same time, balance yourself with awareness of confirmation bias and don’t become hyper-vigilant or aggressive. Find an equilibrium.
Three other simple lessons can be gleaned from the response of the first victim. He had many options available to him in terms of drawing. He could have drawn from a seated position, which is something we need to keep in mind and practice. Perhaps he felt the need to stand up because he was carrying on the small of his back. This is one reason I advocate for appendix carry, simply because it is more efficient movement and less likely to be obstructed. Small of the back draws are harder to clear clothing for, involves much more arm movement, as well as shoulder flexibility that many folks can struggle with. I suspect some of those factors led this victim to take his eyes off the threat and look at his hand when his draw didn’t go smoothly. Unfortunately that appears to have cost him his life.
Additionally, this is why we have a par time of two seconds for a draw to first shot on target. In the video it appears that the shooter is concentrating on the usher and not the security person standing up, but then he notices him and shoots. That whole sequence from stepping back, drawing the gun, intimidating the usher, to picking up on the security team member, backing up five steps, to his first shot, took nearly four seconds. A two second draw to first shot could have ended the threat much sooner.
Last, it would have been beneficial to get off the X while you are drawing the firearm. Our first victim didn’t do this either. Moving while drawing becomes another obstacle the gunman has to overcome to hit his targeted victims. Make sure you and your team are able to move move laterally while drawing.
Though the security leader who put a head shot on the gunman was late to respond in a general sense, after the initial BANG, he drew his gun and put a shot on target in just over a second. Speed and accuracy are essential in any gun fight. Also notice that he was somewhere between 10 and 15 yards. A head shot from that distance, under pressure like that, in less than two seconds, takes a great deal of skill. Are you proficient enough in your firearm handling to perform any such task? Another point of interest is that he didn’t unload on the gunman. He demonstrated judgement between each shot, which was essential because he had people between him and the gunman. You need to make sure you are incorporating judgement into your training, not just shooting fast and accurate.
For the second victim, the usher the gunman originally targeted, he was stuck with some very difficult choices. If you are unarmed and within arms distance and have a gun pulled on you, a best practice is to actually close the distance and dominate the firearm and the arms of the gunman. Guns are distance weapons, closing the distance even more if you are in arms reach allows you to do what is Active Self Protection calls the 5 D’s + One. Control Distance, Deflect, Dominate, Distract, Disarm, and Disable. The usher was complying with the gunman, and we need to remember that compliance is absolutely an option, but it may not always be the winning option. To give yourself more options, like using the five D’s plus one, you’ve got to practice to get the attitude and skills to pull it off.
Now on to the follow through of the security team after the gunman was down. First, the security lead got into a position so that he could see the gunman and continued to keep his gun on him. He also was smart in that as he moved he was careful not to flag other church goers. Some other members of the security team followed that lead and managed not to flag people as they moved. However two responding security people look like they flagged several people in the upper body and head. Please make sure you practice with your people proper muzzle awareness and how to move safely without flagging teammates or innocent folks. Safest position here would have been ceiling, which a few of the security folks did. The second safest is the ground, but remember there are lost of people moving around and one the ground.
Though neither shooting victim lived through the encounter, it appears that moments after the gunman is down that someone comes to their aid. You cant tell in the video if medical aid was given, but that would be ideal. You need to not only have the right equipment, like TQ’s, homeostatic gauze, chest seals, etc., you need to have folks that can adequately deploy those tools. We can’t speculate on if that happened here, and there really isn’t any need to, you can provide excellent immediate aid and it still not be enough. Regardless of that fact, those are essential life saving skills and any security team needs to have a dedicated medical role. It’s best practice for teams to have those tools on their person in the form of an IFAK. If you can manage to equip everyone with an IFAK, containing a similar loadout the medic is cognizant of, that is ideal.
What happens to you and your security team in the aftermath is extremely important. I learned this in Charlottesville after the domestic terrorist attack carried out by James Fields during the fascist Unite the Right Rally. There could be more than one attacker and more than one horrible attack. After an attack, don’t get tunnel vision and continue to assess your situation. Our security team was tasked with securing the park we where running out of. We had a huge influx of people coming to the site with medic needs, as well as the processing the trauma of what happened – a white nationalist intentionally running over a thick group of protesters. When some of our members returned from doing emergency first aid they where pretty messed up from what they saw, but we still needed to secure the space. We didn’t know if this was coordinated attack and if there was more coming. Fortunately we were able to swap people out and effectively became somewhat of a safe trauma processing center. We’ve referred to what happened to those returning members as “psychological causalities” in the time since then because they effectively returned with little operational capacity and diminished judgement. Security teams need to stay vigilant especially if a threat is still looming or unknown. You must maintain sound judgement and not make purely reactive decisions.
If you are doing security be prepared to see terrible stuff and know when you or a teammate needs to tap out. Build capacity in your movement and acceptance of that fact so people can have the ability to step away and recover in the aftermath of such terrible attacks. Remove, isolate, or otherwise tactfully redirect people in your team who are made into temporary psychological casualties, and develop a culture that honors that limit. Heaping love, not judgement, on folks that have maxed out their capacity. It’s a sign of humanity and deep empathy to push yourself to that point, and its a matter of best practice to not be involved once people hit that point. Have clear standard operating procedures and protocols for identifying that behavior and how to deal with it so folks don’t take it to personal. If its a group norm and group expectation it’s much easier to address.
Last, but not least, pulling security carries with it an increased possibility of death and severe injury. Don’t ever forget that when you sign up and don’t let your formation treat security in a cavalier or casual manner. For that manner, don’t let folks in the movement treat it lightly either. The most dangerous security work I’ve done was when we had short notice and the organizers didn’t really have scope or any real grounding in what the reality on the ground looked like. They thought they had security and we knew that things were fucked but they didn’t have ears to hear it. I wish in that instance that we would have put our foot down and them have to shift their actions closer to the reality. Don’t be cannon fodder for stupid posturing and don’t be a useful idiot just because you are down for intense scenarios.
I want to emphasize this- We don’t want to die, we don’t want to hurt others, we want all of us to live, and we don’t venerate the warrior. Becoming a warrior isn’t something to aspire to or center yourself around. Destroy the reverence you have for “the gun” and those who wield it. Stop mythologizing armed praxis and looking at it with rose tinted glasses. Every time I do security I recognize that the outcome two of these church goers suffered could be my ending, with my family left behind to pick up the pieces. If you’re going to do the this kinda work, center yourself instead on the innate value of life, not on taking it. As you train let life be your motivation and check any attitude that is glorifies violence even in self defense. Defense is a position we are forced into by folks seeking to damage you, not something we are itching for. I hope you can view defense as an act of self love, of love for your community, rather than some blood lust for violence. If you see that attitude in your security team – address it and if they don’t budge – kick them out.