City of Norton defends use of the phrase 'active shooter' after incident that evacuated school

Posted at 4:31 PM, Oct 04, 2017

The massacre on the Strip, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood. They're the tragedies that come to mind when you hear "active shooter."

That's why News 5 had some tough questions for one local police department that announced an active shooter Tuesday night when a gunman shot at officers.

RELATED: Police arrest 'active shooter' in Norton

It started with a 911 call about a man with an assault rifle at a storage facility.

At the time that 911 call came in to dispatch, no shots were yet fired by the suspect.

"Specific details are more helpful than a term like active shooter,” said Jonathan Witmer-Rich, who teaches criminal procedure at Cleveland State University.

However, "active shooter" is how Norton police described the situation that rapidly unfolded just a half-hour later.

"It's often very important that the dispatcher try to convey factually whatever information he or she is aware of, as opposed to characterizing it with a term or something like that," said Witmer-Rich.

"A man with a gun shooting at police" is how Witmer-Rich would have described the situation.

"It paints a little more precise picture than the term 'active shooter' which may lead people to quickly assume a bunch of innocent people have already been shot," said Witmer-Rich.

Witmer-Rich tells News 5 it isn't always possible, but dispatchers and police should try to share more details and rely less on catchphrases and terminology.

"Trying to learn about specific facts that are known at the time is better than often give a label to the facts that might alarm people unnecessarily," said Witmer-Rich.

News 5 reached out to Norton's police chief and did not hear back.

City Administrator Robert Fowler said their use of "active shooter" was 100 percent accurate.

He told News 5 that the suspect, David Havrilek, was actively shooting at officers as they arrived.

They returned fire hitting Havrilek. No officers were hurt.