Hurry Up and Wait: Why Cops Freeze and Kids Die


Russell Jung, Sergeant, ret., New York City Police Department

Daniel Modell, Lieutenant, ret., New York City Police Department


I. Killers Kill


Armed killers march into a school and start shooting staff and students. Officers that respond initially establish a perimeter and request the response of specialized units. They are uncertain about the precise nature of the incident: are there hostages? are the killers barricading themselves in the school (procedurally, those types of situations mandate different types of tactical responses)? The officers wait outside for some 49 minutes before making entry. As officers ponder entry, the killers kill. The result is 13 dead and 21 injured.

You might be disposed to think that the narrative detailed above describes a recent event in Texas. If so, you would be wrong. It describes an incident at Columbine High School in 1999--decades earlier. But the confusion would be understandable. Despite the distance in time, the events share a stifling sameness. In Uvalde, an armed killer marched into an elementary school and started shooting staff and students. Officers that responded initially established a perimeter and requested the response of specialized units. They claimed to be uncertain about the precise nature of the incident. Were there hostages? Was the killer barricaded? The officers waited outside for some 48 minutes before making entry. As officers pondered entry, the killer killed. The result was 21 dead and 17 injured.

The phenomenon of Rapid Mass Murder (or, less accurately, “Active Shooters”) has plagued the culture for a generation. Columbine, briefly described in the opening paragraph, established the essential template for the long history of incidents that followed. The intervening decades since Columbine have witnessed a flurry of effort at remediation. Yet, for all the effort, the edgy tactics, the analyses, the lessons learned, the panels, conferences and hearings; for all the reports, the guidance, the training and the money thrown at it, the problem of Rapid Mass Murder has not gotten any better. As a matter of fact, the numbers declare that it has gotten worse. The response to Robb Elementary School was in every essential sense the same as the response to Columbine High School--nearly a quarter century later. The efforts seem to yield no payoff. Is it possible that so little has been learned in over two decades? How can that be?


II. Dysfunctional Decision-Making


A range of systemic dysfunctions--cultural, political, moral and tactical--drive the phenomenon of the "active shooter." All cry for sober exploration but an exhaustive analysis of the full range would fill a volume. Focusing on a single aspect of the larger network of dysfunctions, namely, what drives decision-making can, nevertheless, illuminate and explain to a meaningful degree why some of these incidents evolve as they do.

Nothing mucks up decision-making like inconsistent messaging. Inconsistency, implicit or otherwise, yields paralysis and inaction. Consider an example. Suppose that someone is interested in buying a house. He seeks the advice of an acquaintance versed in real estate. The expert tells the prospective homeowner that he should do it. Buying a house is a good idea. It provides shelter, builds equity, serves as a tangible asset and establishes stable roots. The buyer is bolstered by the advice. But before he even starts planning the next step toward securing a house, the expert suddenly changes tone. Housing bubbles are a looming threat, he notes, and if the bubble bursts, financial disaster is virtually assured. Timing is critical and so, too, is location. Which location? The expert will not commit himself to a fixed answer but does manage to name a few unaffordable ones. What the expert does commit himself to is the extraordinary insight that if things do not work out, foreclosure and perhaps worse is a real possibility. “But I’m not saying don’t buy,” the expert assures. “In fact, you should buy. Good idea. I’m just cluing you into the realities,” realities, please note, all suggesting that it isn’t such a good idea. More than that: the “realities” are really trivialities in the sense that they carry no special insight. Everyone knows them up front. Every sensible person knows that success is not guaranteed—in any endeavor. Focusing on remote possibilities, all negative invariably, masquerades as sophistication but in reality it is simply mealy hedging. The hedging provides cover for failing to commit to a clear vision of what to do. It is an implicit “don’t” behind an explicit “do.” As a practical matter, the explicit mandate “do” and the implicit mandate “don’t” cancel one another and yield paralysis. Our prospective homeowner is pinned in a loop. Should he buy or not? The input sneezed out by the expert appears to support both decisions and neither seems sustainable against the other. Buy—but anticipate financial ruin (so…don’t buy?). The “expert” further burdened an already difficult decision.

Imagine advice of this sort governing the most extreme kinds of encounters possible between human beings; high stakes, time compressed encounters--where decision-making, it must be noted, is not even discursive, as in the example above, but rather flanked by chaos and urgency; Rapid Mass Murder events. Nominally, the standard protocol for law enforcement officers is some form of “Go get the killer as quickly as you can.” We agree with that tactic—without qualification. But, invariably, what follows the mandate is a heap of dense qualifications—implicit “don’ts.”

Policy, procedure and training at one and the same time require that the officer:

Go get the killer—but: “it’s very, very dangerous, especially for cops, who might get shot or killed (The data, however loosely you interpret them, show that this possibility is very rare indeed).”

Go get the killer—but “be ever wary of friendly fire.” (The data, however loosely you interpret them, show that this possibility is very rare indeed.)

Go get the killer—but “these incidents are endlessly complex and ever-evolving and we must be sensitive to the subtleties. Mass murder can evolve into a hostage crisis”—which demands precisely the opposite of the tactic initially urged, further deepening the inconsistent messaging. In any event, the data, however loosely you interpret them, show that this possibility is very rare indeed—and on a fully reasonable interpretation, non-existent. Killers whose consuming purpose is to amass corpses, and who, on the whole, do not plan to survive the event, do not switch to the goal of negotiating—other than as a ruse which without variation ends in disaster for the “hostages.” Killers whose sole aim is to employ murder as theatre to achieve infamy have no interest, finally, in negotiation.  

Go get the killer—but “be aware that some of these killers are highly trained operators just waiting for an opportunity to kill a cop—and they have the skill to do it. They may also blend seamlessly into the crowd of victimized civilians. Be aware of that too. He might kill you or someone else by masquerading in that guise. (The data, however loosely you interpret them, show that this possibility is very rare indeed.)

Go get the killer—but “be very careful about shooting innocent victims—tough thing to live with if you do.” (The data, however loosely you interpret them, show that this possibility is very rare indeed.)

So go get him. Do it. It’s your job. But the killer is highly trained and waiting to ambush you so you may very well die; you may very well shoot another cop or an innocent civilian; remember that these incidents are very complex and might spontaneously metamorphose into the opposite of what they seem at first and if you misinterpret the nature of the incident and innocents die, imagine the litigation, the press, the ruination. In other words, don’t go get him. Implicit ‘don’ts’ cancel explicit ‘do’s’. Hesitancy and inaction are the predictable and not uncommon results, since the inconsistent messages allow no rational path out of the decision-loop. The inconsistency breeds a further dysfunction: as a practical matter, you cannot consciously focus on more than one thing at a time. So, to whatever extent you focus on negative injunctions such as “don’t shoot fellow officers” or “don’t shoot innocents” or “don’t confuse an active shooter with a hostage-taker even though the selfsame subject might be both” then you are not and cannot really focus on the presumed priority to “stop the killer.” Fretting over the former effectively erases the latter. In any case, negative injunctions offer no actual guidance and so serve merely to burden decision-making without specifiable advantage.

The dozens of officers (many of them fathers and mothers of young children themselves) who responded to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and waited outside an established perimeter while children were being murdered may have been cowards but with their range of years and experience in law enforcement it seems inconceivable that they would not have responded to their share of volatile and violent incidents prior to May 24, 2022. Equally inconceivable is the notion that they did not care about the students that they took an oath to protect. The idea that cowardice in itself explains the inaction that haunted the mass shooting at the school is unconvincing. It would mean that dozens of individuals all rushing to the same location, presumably to help, very oddly chose careers in a profession in which death is an occupational hazard--not generally an inviting choice to cowards. The idea of dozens of cowardly police officers responding to the same incident is no less baffling than the inaction itself. Perhaps a deeper and less comfortable pathology is operating. That pathology can be partly understood as a symptom of dysfunctional decision-making, a mental loop nourished by contradictory injunctions and the mealy indecisiveness inherent to bureaucracies. Although troubling and by no means satisfying, is there not deeper explanatory power in at least countenancing the possibility that the officers believed that by entering and pursuing the killer, they might themselves have killed innocents in the chaos (if reports are accurate, this was indeed a real concern of some on the scene), killed fellow officers, been ill-equipped to handle a “trained” killer, misconstrued a hostage-taker (or "barricaded" scenario, if reports are accurate) for an active killer? The analysis does not seek to excuse but to explain. Cowardice is a comforting and convenient explanation in that it resolves itself into mere personal failing and, as such, requires no meaningful re-examination of the existing orthodoxies grounding our approach to the phenomenon of Rapid Mass Murder. It explains away without explaining. Officers who responded to Robb Elementary School were trained to respond to active shooters; they knew the policies of their agencies on active shooters. Does it ring true to suppose then that training and policy played no role in how they responded? Is it not possible that the qualifications embedded in training and policy, implicitly counseling inaction, played a role in the broad inaction that riddled the response in Uvalde?


III. Solutions without Understanding


Quick fixes dominate the culture. We oftentimes insist on solutions before we even understand a problem. Understanding a problem takes time and patience--and in the context of Rapid Mass Murder we, understandably perhaps, have neither. The problem is this: in the absence of substantive understanding (which, it bears repeating, demands some time and patience), “solutions” must be grounded in something other than understanding—in orthodoxy, guesswork, inertia and a hodgepodge of contradictory messaging. Those find their way into policy, training and narrative. Is it any wonder, then, that the phenomenon of Rapid Mass Murder has not gotten any better?


About the Authors


Lieutenant Daniel Modell (ret.) served twenty years in the New York City Police Department. He was Coordinator of the Tactical Training Unit and Training Coordinator for the Firearms and Tactics Section.  He is author of The Warrior’s Manifesto: Ideals for Those Who Protect and Defend and “The Psychology of the Active Killer.”


Sergeant Russell Jung (ret.) served some twenty-three years in the New York City Police Department. Prior to his career in law enforcement, he served in the United States Army. He served as Supervising Instructor of the Tactical Training Unit and in the Firearms and Tactics Section. Sergeant Jung is the author of "State Bureaucracy: Entropic Organization in the Age of 4th Generation Warfare."