Tactical lessons from San Bernardino attack

By Chief Travis Walker
Cathedral City (CA) Police Department

Two years ago, on Dec. 2, I was the tactical commander for the San Bernardino Police Department during a terror attack that claimed the lives of 14 people and injured 22 others.

Saturday’s anniversary brought back a lot of memories. I am reminded of the first responders who endured the unimaginable sights, sounds and smells while suppressing personal feelings as they carried out a very unpredictable mission.

Serving as the overall tactical commander responding to this tragedy, I was also reminded of the teamwork, tenacity and courage of law enforcement officers from several agencies that ultimately stopped the two terrorists, whose names won’t be repeated here because they deserve no recognition, no glory, for their cowardly act against the innocent.

Since then, I was fortunate to become the chief of the Cathedral City Police Department in Southern California. It’s been interesting to me how many people have asked what I learned from that horrific event and what changes I brought to the department when I came on board in September 2016.

But it makes sense to me why they do. Few policing leaders have led a tactical operation amid an active terror attack. Sadly though, as we keep experiencing attacks both domestically and internationally, the list of policing leaders with that sort of experience is growing.

My first response is we must make sure our people are prepared, because we don’t get to pick the time nor the place where these tragic events occur. In the past, we focused on training for the last event. But what we are finding is we must train our people for the future.

Although we will never discount the lessons from the past, as we have seen from Columbine to Aurora to Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando to Las Vegas to New York, each attack is different. Each has its own unique characteristics and we must do our best to prepare our personnel to address a variety of potential threats.

All the training in the world won’t prepare you for the specifics of the unknown, but proper training can help your personnel develop the necessary skills to allow them to use processes and systems to work through and mitigate the challenges of each individual situation. This includes ensuring our personnel have a better understanding of critical incident management principals, along with a better understanding of the basic principals of the Incident Command System.

That means we focus on teaching our staff how to be effective leaders in critical incidents, even when they may not be the ranking officer at the time.

The military has a very good way of looking at leadership. They emphasize the concept of training an individual to not only be proficient in their job but also be proficient in the job of the person above and below them.

We need to do the same. We must teach our people how to be more effective leaders, especially during critical incidents because decisions are rapidly having to be made, and often without a supervisor being present with the employee.

That means giving your officers the best training possible with their decision-making, helping them do the basic parts of the job very well so when the big event happens, they can focus on the critical incident.

We saw it on Dec. 2 where officers were able to form multi-agency entry teams and enter the building, the rescue and evacuation of victims, and during the subsequent pursuit and firefight with the suspects. Despite not being from the same agency, the officers’ training allowed them to work well together.

Training has expanded what is typically a traditional response to an event to prepare people to create dynamic squads with specific cross-training to effectively handle assault, support, rescue and force-protection missions.

Another critical lesson from the Dec. 2 attack is it can happen anywhere. In San Bernardino, we had done a lot of training, both as a department and on a regional level that we led. The morning of Dec. 2, I had our SWAT Team, along with some of our newer patrol officers, participating in Active Shooter and Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities (MACTAC) training.  

The concept of MACTAC provides the means to allow officers to spontaneously and effectively control various threats as quickly as possible by using small unit infantry tactics to immediately apply pressure on assailants vs. waiting and holding a perimeter.

We had just finished a training scenario when we received the call to respond to the Inland Regional Center. Ironically, we had changed our training to cover these topics due to the attacks that occurred in Paris, as well as the shooting attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs the weekend before.  

Did we prepare thinking we would have a terror attack in our city? Not really, but we thought it could happen somewhere in our region. We thought we would most likely provide a mutual-aid response, but the training allowed for our officers to be ready when it came to our doorstep.

It opened our eyes it could happen anywhere.

When I became deputy chief in Cathedral City, we immediately undertook the assessment of departmental supplies and equipment. Using grant funding, every officer was outfitted with a rifle. We also used grant funding to upgrade body armor by purchasing plate carriers to protect from enhanced weaponry. For our motorcycle officers, we added rifles to their motorcycles to ensure all of our personnel had access to the same standardized equipment for their protection – no matter their assignment.

From my perspective, if we are going to prepare our officers to prevail against the enhanced threats that they are faced with now, we must give them the available tools necessary to win the fight. This is paramount.

We also provided each officer with personal trauma kits that fit in the plate carriers of their concealable body armor.  

I highly recommend doing so because a trauma kit is worthless sitting in a cruiser’s trunk or glove box. The kits, which come with a tourniquet, hemostatic gauze, pressure dressing and gloves, are easy to open even if an officer has been wounded in the field. I think back to the 1997 North Hollywood shootout and what a difference that could have made for wounded officers who had been trapped behind parked vehicles and in areas that prevented their immediate rescue.

We also are doing more training on in-the-field medical procedures, such as self-aid during range training, which often can be the difference between living and dying.

This isn’t the forum to discuss tactical changes that we have made to our public venue events, such as festivals, parades and concerts, but I will tell you we have reevaluated our deployment strategies and we have enhanced our capabilities and response to be better prepared and to deter possible attacks.

Since the attacks in Boston, New York and Las Vegas, we must reassess how we view our deployment strategies where we have events that draw large numbers of people within our communities.  

It’s often been said we live in a video game era. Throughout our nation’s recent history, attacks have shown suspects desire to exceed the highest death toll. Today, that number is 58 killed and 489 wounded – as in, 547 victims killed and wounded during a single event that occurred with no advanced warning.  

Take time to think about what dealing with 60 deceased victims would look like. Or 75. Or … fill in an awful number. How would you and your agency deal with that many victims? Have you discussed and trained with neighboring agencies, along with your Fire and EMS partners, what a unified response would look like? Start having these discussions now so that you are not meeting your counterparts for the first time in a command post at the scene of a critical incident.

As we spend time training our officers to work a critical incident, we must also take time to train and better prepare the organization for the post-incident care that our officers will need. This would include effective peer-counseling programs, support groups and strong mental health support.

As policing leaders, that’s what it has come to. That’s what we need to plan for.


Chief Travis Walker joined the Cathedral City Police Department in September of 2016 as deputy police chief and was promoted to police chief in October of 2017. Prior to joining Cathedral City Police Department, he spent 20 years with the San Bernardino Police Department. Chief Walker has a master’s degree in leadership and disaster preparedness from Grand Canyon University, and possesses a management certificate issued by the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.  He is also a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute.

Chief Walker is a recognized subject matter expert in the areas of active shooter response, critical incident management, gangs, incident command, and narcotics.

One Comment to "Tactical lessons from San Bernardino attack"

  1. Reply Craig Loe December 4, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    As a citizen of Cathedral City I am very proud to know Travis Walker is our Chief of Police.

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