The Posse Theory: Is it a workable tactic against mass murder?

by Scott on October 4, 2010

Editor’s Note:This is a guest post from Ron Borsch. Ron’s bio is at the end of this article.

In a rapid mass murder incident, the primary objective of law enforcement 1st Responders is simply to “STOP THE KILLING”. 1st Responders need to both understand and be trained in the best strategies and tactics to stop an active killer. After a decade of training under the belief that a trained multiple man formation is the best way to do it, there may be some reservation about doing anything different. Perhaps the best way to consider changing any belief system is to start at the beginning, accept only reality facts, probable cause likelihood and reject any unproven theory. We should also understand the tactical history, including its evolution to present day.


The “Posse Theory”© is a generic hypothesis, or belief system that waiting for backup, especially dogma on rounding up a trained multiple officer formation, is a workable countermeasure for rapid mass murder. An active killer is “One who commits rapid mass murder”©. Rapid mass murder is “Under twenty minutes, four or more persons intentionally killed in the same event, time and public location”©.

History of the “Posse Theory”©

The tragic murders in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado was a turning point for revising and standardizing tactical responses for copycat rapid mass murder. There is good reason to believe that new tactics then were based on the “Columbine model”, (a school, two killers and about 17 minutes of killing). Tactical experts then correctly deducted that getting less manpower on scene sooner than SWAT, was the right thing to do. Thereafter, first responders were trained in multiple officer formation methods of one sort or another.

The number of officers in a “Posse” formation seemed most commonly standardized on four. There were a variety of formation types, each vigorously defended by their adherents. Over time, only the enlightened seemed to notice that we were still consistently arriving “too late with too many”. Whoever first said “When seconds count, police are only minutes away” was right. The original idea of getting less manpower on scene sooner was still correct, but the concept was not carried far enough, nor was it adjusted for prior, evolving or current events. Initially, it was a rare agency or trainer that did something to fix it. Ironically, the “Posse Theory”© seems to be based on an anomaly model.

In the 25 years before Columbine, we are aware of nearly 20 incidents of single killer copycat rapid mass murder and attempts, (an average of less than one a year). Of the Pre-Columbine known times among them, the average killing time was 11 minutes, (ranging from 2 examples of 4 minutes, to one example of 20 minutes). In the annals of copycat rapid mass murders, both before and after Columbine, there have never been two shooters inside a school actively killing innocents for 17 minutes. The Columbine model was an exception to the rule of how copycat rapid mass murder occurs. Relying on any faulty belief system can and has been fatal. A delay, for any reason, results in casualties among the innocents that we are supposed to protect.

Probably Cause Predictability

Rapid mass murder is a growing copycat crime, an almost four fold increase from pre-Columbine to post-Columbine. Fortunately, especially due to the copycat M. O., the active killer has given us probable cause predictability. In reality, the combination of what has worked best, the short time frame and probable outcome of these incidents should dictate our strategy and tactical response. For law enforcement, our biggest problem is time and distance. Other problems include locating in a typical huge facility such as a school or workplace. Unless we are close enough, gunfire may not be heard at all. When we are close enough to hear gunfire, the reflection and echoing effect can be directionally confusing.

Anomaly Paradigm Shift to Single Active Killers and Half the Time

Post-Columbine and over time, as we continued to witness growing instances of rapid mass murder by an active killer occur, it became apparent that while these were still copycat events, they too were also dissimilar to the anomaly Columbine model. The vast majority M.O. of only one murderer, and less than half the time, begged for a different strategy and tactics. Rapid mass murder incidents were also getting faster. In the 11 years after Columbine we had almost 40 rapid mass murders and attempts, an average of just less than four a year. Among the known times of Post-Columbine incidents, the average time was down to 8 minutes. Worse, we now know that there is a typical delay of +/- 6 minutes in notifying law enforcement.

The Stopwatch of Death Factor© Lends Comparison Clarity

The Stopwatch of Death© provides a reliable unit of measurement with which to determine the scale of one active killer incident compared to another. Columbine had 2.1 murder attempts per minute. Virginia Tech had over three times the attempted murders per minute as Columbine. Dunblane Scotland had 8.0 murder attempts per minute. Now, using “tactical math”, subtract the typical +/- 6 minute notification delay from the 8 minute post-Columbine average. The remaining precious +/- 2 “Golden Minutes”© indicates what kind of perishable opportunity we are facing and how quickly we must act to be successful. Of course, “No one said it would be easy”.

The too few “Golden Minutes”© for law enforcement to act is a very tall order: Consider how our time is consumed: Taking the notification call; Dispatching officers; Officer’s responding; Arrival; Entry; Locating in a typically huge facility and; Stopping the murderer. Locating in a large facility can be the most challenging task of all. The good news is that once the murderer is located, actually stopping the killing should be an easy task for any competent officer.

Relevant Lifesaving Time Period: Collision of Theory versus Reality

Instead of a polite convergence of theory and reality, we have a deadly collision of incompatibility. Some trainers and agencies have been much too slow to realize, (if at all), that the expected outcome of their training when confronted by reality, has failed. The “Posse Theory”©, (rounding up a trained multiple officer formation), has been a “No-Show” in any relevant lifesaving time period. As a “Plan A” primary tactic for stopping rapid mass murder, to date, the “Posse Theory”© has proved to be a faulty belief system begging for correction.

As a later secondary response function for the search and rescue team however, the value of rounding up a formation is suggested, especially when two Fire Department Paramedics are added.

This search and rescue team would have the objective of “STOP THE BLEEDING” on wounded victims. The officer’s primary duty with the search and rescue team would be as bodyguards for the Paramedics.

What Works? Reality Results are Compelling!

Rapid aggressive action by even a single actor has been and is now the most effective countermeasure for the active killer”. Citizens account for about two thirds of rapid mass murder aborts, and law enforcement, about a third. When citizens successfully stop rapid mass murder, most are unarmed. Initiation by a single civilian, both armed and unarmed has accounted for 82% of civilian aborts. Of course citizens have the “advantage” of already being on site. Nothing however, can take away from their courage to act with a zero guarantee that anyone else will help them.

A tracking history of successful law enforcement aborts of rapid mass murder by to date has been 70% SOLO officer initiated. Unlike the unarmed citizen, officers and deputies typically have a virtual guarantee of back-up coming. Along with demystification of the active killer, this information should be a major motivating empowerment for the ”Single Officer’s Lifesaving Other’s”© method. Initiation by two officers success has been 20%, and lastly an untrained plain clothes three officer response is at 10%. (We are still searching for a documented abort of rapid mass murder by a trained multiple officer formation of four of more officers).

Independent Feedback: Convergence of Reality and Solo Simulations

Investigator Robert Duncan of the Waterloo Iowa Police Department’s 120 officer agency and his active killer response training staff had previously trained in the conventional “Posse Theory”© of a formation, (specifically, the “Diamond”). Their agency’s extensive 2010 summer training experimented with two-officer teams with an added twist. The agency’s reality based training allowed their officers the flexibility of splitting up, and they did! Performing then as SOLO responders, they discovered they had the repeatable ability to locate and stop the active killer role-player much faster, (2-X). The staggered arrival time of a second two-officer team, also splitting up in a multidirectional SOLO fashion, revealed an even faster probability, (total 4-X), of locating the active killer. These simulated findings have real world applicability.

Typically, the active killer wishes to avoid police, but when their role player tried avoiding one officer, inevitably, he ran into another officer. When the role player chose to engage one SOLO officer, he was sufficiently distracted to be an easy target for another SOLO officer coming from a different direction. The results were many more marking cartridge hits on the active killer role player than in the past training. Duncan reported no crossfire issues in any of the numerous SOLO officer scenarios, whereas in their prior multiple officer formations, trainers did observe problems with 1st responders muzzle direction and risks of friendly fire whenever the action started. For a summary of Duncan’s findings, see Force Science Newsletter #158 II “Active Killer Surprise.

Tracking History Behavior and Profile of the Typical Active Killer

It is important to demystify the active killer for the 1st Responders. Who is he? The active killer is a copycat. In the schools, typically the active killer is a student, suspended, expelled or former student. In the workplace, he is typically an employee or former employee.

The typical active killer’s goal is a fast body count, not hostages or negotiation. He is racing to beat 1st Responders, and has a head start. The active killer is an amateur murderer. By virtue of choosing a surprise ambush on defenseless victims, he is a coward. He is also a cheap-shot close range shooter. No marksman, the active killer often misses or wounds more than he murders.

For responding officers, the active killer is one of the “least dangerous to police”, man-with-gun opponents they will ever face. Not wanting to face police, the active killer typically commits suicide on site whether the officers arrive in time or not. Certainly no Rambo, of all rapid mass murder aborts, the active killer is most frequently stopped by unarmed citizens 43 % of the time.

Tragically, Prior Training Can Hurt Innocents

Unfortunately, conventional training, such as waiting for backup, rounding up a formation and other officer safety tactics get in the way of successfully stopping the active killer. For example, “Slow and Methodical” methods tragically conflict with the typical perishable opportunity times. Conventional slow and methodical tactics in a school or workplace shooting, actually becomes “Tactical Loitering”© while innocents remain at risk.

Ironically, in an effort to avoid the deadly error of “Tombstone Courage” we may commit the deadly error of “Tombstone Caution”©. The similarity of the “Tactical Loitering’© and “Tombstone Caution”© errors are that while both are committed by law enforcement officers, the penalty is paid in blood by innocents. This certainly is at odds with our mission of “Stopping the Killing”.

Logic and Rationale: Time and Probable Outcome Changes Everything

Handicapped by time and distance, law enforcement has an almost impossible task without the luck of a capable and courageous officer being close. Unlike the myriad of calls where law enforcement has been trained to wait for backup, a shooting in a public place such as a school or work place is quite different. For example, the probable outcome in the multitude of calls where we professionally and correctly wait for backup does NOT commonly result in murder. The probable outcome of a shooting in a public place such as a school or workplace however does commonly result in murder, (mass murder, or multiples of mass murder). Clearly, an extraordinary problem deserves an extraordinary solution.

Unconventional Circumstances Require an Unconventional Response

Any officer that wishes to accomplish the objective of stopping the killing must understand that the “Stopwatch of Death”© continues ticking in the active killer’s race to get his intended body count before law enforcement can stop him. The murderer’s self-imposed dead line and a surprise head start, leaves law enforcement a very perishable small window of opportunity to act. Wise agency leaders and training officers should only invest in demonstrably proven, successful strategy and tactics, such as “Single Officer’s Lifesaving Others”©. Those that suggest there could be a “blue-on-blue” friendly fire problem have missed the point. The real friendly fire challenge is to avoid shooting numerous panicked innocents, not a conspicuously uniformed officer, (plain clothes officers should not enter).

Conclusion: We Suggest, You Decide

The “Posse Theory”© has had a decade to demonstrate its value. The result has been consistent proof of “Arriving too late with too many”. When rapid mass murder is stopped, it has been most often stopped by initiation of a single UNARMED citizen.

When law enforcement successfully stops the active killer, most often it is initiated by a SOLO officer. A community’s expectation is that their law enforcement agency will train with and use the most effective strategies and tactics to keep their community safe. They deserve no less.

Unfortunately, there are bound to be those who will still continue to follow the failed strategy of the “Posse Theory”© despite the absence of a successful tracking history in stopping the active killer. The irony here is similar to the 1999 wait-for-SWAT failed plan at Columbine CO, which resulted in 13 dead. A decade later in 2009, the Binghamton NY/PD used a wait-for-SWAT-plan in an active killer incident, also resulting in 13 dead. This brings to mind the quote: “If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we have always gotten”.

In a typically huge facility, four officers going SOLO in a multi-tiered and multidirectional fashion will cover ground at least four times FASTER than a cluster formation of four officers. Additionally, the fatigue factor inherent in the slower group formation covering ground in a coordinated huddle to locate the killer in a huge facility has not been sufficiently explored.

Common sense however, would tell us that in the same circumstance, four SOLO officers will have covered more than four times as much ground than a Posse formation and would be potentially four times faster in locating the active killer. Both reality and reality based simulation scenarios have pointed out that when law enforcement successfully aborts rapid mass murder, the “Single Officer’s Lifesaving Others”©, initiation method has overwhelmingly been the most effective.

One last analogy: If you were a wagering person, in a combative contest, (Boxing, Wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts), which contestant would you put your money on: Mr. Posse who has never showed up in time and all his matches were declared a forfeit for Mr. Killer, or Mr. Solo who has prevailed in 7 out of 10 matches? We suggest, you decide!

About the Author: Ron Borsch

After a three decade police career, Ron Borsch is semi-retired. While retaining a police commission as a consultant-trainer, he manages and is the lead trainer for SEALE Regional Police Training Academy, a post-graduate facility in Bedford Ohio. SEALE Academy has specialized in tactically training 1st responders since the year 2000. Their current evolution of active killer countermeasures is SOLO, “Single Officer’s Lifesaving Others”©. Ron has presented various subjects in several different states to fellow officers, national and international instructor audiences, and Chiefs of Police. Officers from several different states have journeyed to Ohio to take Ron’s “TACTICAL 1st RESPONDER”© course. His ideas, concepts and articles have appeared on numerous law enforcement web sites.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred Leland October 4, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Outstanding article!

Duane Dawson October 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm

More excellent and thought provoking information. Always good to learn from you, whether on line or at the academy.

Thank you

Jeff Hammond October 6, 2010 at 1:15 pm


What can I say, tremendous eye opening views and thoughts. As the firearms instructors for a small Midwest University Police Department, The Chief and I have attended Ron’s “TACTICAL 1st RESPONDER” course. After going through this course, we started training and equipping our officers in the solo officer response for an active Killer.
Thanks again

Mark Potter April 4, 2012 at 11:31 am


Excellent article! As an SRO and Northwest Ohio District Representative for the Ohio School Resource Officers Association, I reference your article often when talking to groups of teachers and officers. Your research has provided a wealth of information for the benefit and safety of all. I couldn’t agree more with the change in philosophy from the cumbersome four man “posse” to the solo officer response to an active killer. As a department, we have embraced this philosophy and trained all of our officers in solo response. Thank you again for your work.

Patrolman/SRO Mark Potter
Oregon Police Division

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