Police Advise: Avoid, Deny, Defend in Active Attacks

Police Advise: Avoid, Deny, Defend in Active Attacks

Would you know how to respond in critical minutes?

Police advise citizens on how to respond to active attacker situations.

Police advise citizens on how to respond to active attacker situations.

Recent news reports of active shooting events in distant locations, like Uvalde Texas and Buffalo New York, and in our own backyard, at Tysons Corner Center, have some wondering when it will stop. 

Calling to mind the tragic deaths in earlier Virginia incidents at VA Tech, Virginia Beach municipal building, and at various locations around the beltway by two snipers, you also might well ask, “What should I do to survive in an active shooter situation?”  

Fairfax County police have advice and training for the public to help people prepare, as best one can, for a traumatic active attacker event. Training provided on June 25th, at West Springfield District Government Building, by MPO Anthony Capizzi, from the police department’s crime prevention unit, taught attendees how to respond to an active situation, learning from tragedies that happened before.

While almost all past mass killing incidents involve guns, use of knives and cars in such attacks have led law enforcement to use the term “active attacker” instead of “active shooter.” The FBI and DHS still refer to “active shooters.”

Most attackers, 95 percent, are male of any age, set on avenging a perceived wrong done to them in a location they have some connection with; many broadcast their plans in advance on social media or by other means. The majority of incidents occur at commercial establishments, about 50 percent; about 25 percent at schools, and 15 percent outdoors, according to police.

Regardless of the method or location, police urge people who find themselves in such situations to “avoid, deny, and defend,” previously called “run, hide, fight,” as the FBI still refers to the strategy. 

* AVOID means run away from the area if you can to avoid the killer. This might include using an exit other than the one you used to enter an area. 

* DENY means precluding the killer the ability to see or get to you. It may be possible to hide and be undetectable, or to block access to your location by locking or tying doors, creating barriers or changing your position to remain unseen.

* DEFEND is the action you might need to take if “avoid” or “deny” are not possible. It means to take aggressive action to defend yourself using whatever materials may be at hand, grabbing the gun, or fighting the attacker. Police advise that you do not attempt to “play dead” as this is not likely to be convincing and is more likely to make you an easy target.

While police cannot prepare you for every situation possible, they say using the “Avoid/Deny/Defend” strategy provides your best chance of survival until they arrive on the scene. Police response time, at a national average of three minutes from a 911 call, while short, means you may need to rely on your own preparation and deliberations for critical moments. Training yourself to make note of possible exits when you enter any area, giving prior consideration to defense, and keeping “avoid/deny/defend” strategy training in mind, could help save your life. 


Capizzi also says it's important to come to your action decision quickly, to fight the denial phase; if you hear gunshots — react — don’t wait to convince yourself gun fire is happening.

Should the worst happen and you or someone around you is wounded, the Fairfax County Police training includes instruction on how to stop bleeding, which saves lives. The instruction includes applying pressure to and packing wounds, and possible use of a tourniquet until professional emergency medical help arrives. You could need to assist the wounded even as police arrive since their first priority would be to stop the killing. Only after eliminating the continued threat will police then assist with treatment of the wounded, and evacuation of the injured. 

Statistically, public active shooter events are very unusual according to FBI documents, referring to them as “low probability, high impact events.” For example in 2006, the average school in the U.S. could expect to see a current or former student involved in a homicide on its grounds every 13,000 years.

The next training for citizen response to active attackers at West Springfield District Station will be July 16, 9 a.m. until noon. Contact MPO Capizzi at anthony.capizzi@fairfaxcounty.gov to register for a limited number of seats.