On Thursday night, when rapid gunfire interrupted an otherwise peaceful protest downtown, Dallas ceased to be Dallas.

Yes, City Hall remained on Marilla Street, the Mavericks on Victory Avenue, and El Centro College—where a man with a gun killed at least one person—stayed between Main and Elm. But for the officers responding to the shooting, their city had transformed into a combat zone. This isn’t just metaphor. Suddenly, Dallas’s officers could have been in New York, LA, or down the road in Austin. Because since the turn of the century, urban police forces have responded to situations like Dallas according to a playbook that treats urban environments not as unique cities but as a whole other form, a deconstructed series of sight lines and shadowed corners.

“Stop the Killing”

A mass shooting scenario changes the function of every object in the built environment. In a parking garage like the one where authorities say the deadly standoff between the Dallas shooter and police officers took place, a concrete pillar that usually supports the level above might become a defense barrier, or a place that conceals an ambush. A window that lets in afternoon light instead affords a view in for officers—and a view out for shooters.

The actual layout of the city, the map, has little effect on the response of a tactical police force. “It’s being outside versus being inside,” says Pete Blair, executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University. ALERRT has trained over 85,000 law enforcement officers, including some from Dallas, and the center’s response protocol has been adopted by the FBI. The first step, Blair says, is always the same: “Stop the Killing.” It’s why videos taken by journalists and bystanders Thursday night show officers rushing towards, not away from, gunfire.

Police run through a checklist that reduces the built environment—and the shooter’s place in it—to a list of questions. Outside means splitting up to cover more sight lines; inside means bunching together. Is the fire coming from one nearby place, or is it far away? If the shooting is close, officers might form a line parallel to the shooter, to “maximize our firepower toward that front threat,” Blair says. If officers have to travel, they might do it in a line perpendicular to the fire, so they can move quickly and as a group by following the person in front of them.

The buildings themselves, the fabric of the city, ends up not mattering so much. In fact, sometimes it becomes a kind of enemy. In 2003 the architect Eyal Weitzman wrote about a similar urban transformation during another moment of violence, in wartime. In 2002, the Israeli Defense Force slowly made its way through the Palestinian city of Nablus, but they didn’t use streets or alleys. Instead—nightmarishly—soldiers used explosives to blast through walls and ceilings, building to adjacent building, capturing and killing fighters as they went.

“The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but the very medium of warfare,” Weitzman writes, “a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.” It’s not the city where people live, work, and play.

Stop It Before It Starts

Given these scary, weird transformations, it’s no wonder architects and designers have tried to violence-proof America’s urban places. Since the turbulent 1960s, planners have tried to prevent crime through environmental design. Early proponents included folks like Jane Jacobs, who argued that streets should be full of residents and businesses and visitors, whose watchful eyes might dissuade bad people from doing bad.

Some cities have incorporated crime prevention into their infrastructure regulations. After the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, Japanese authorities removed potential bomb-harboring trash cans from its stations, and added windows to subway cars that could open and close. In the US, Virginia Beach’s design standards for parking structures ask designers to put stairways on the buildings’ peripheries and encase them in transparent material like glass. The idea is to let authorities—anyone, really—see what’s going on inside.

But design can do only so much. “One of the things about a large country,” says Brian Jackson, a safety management and preparedness expert at the RAND Corporation, “is that we have a very big area, and a lot of sunk costs in terms of infrastructure.” In other words, Americans aren’t going to rebuild their cities to accommodate the possibility of violence. The people who protect the people in those cities will just have to learn to see them differently.

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Violence Forces Police (and Architects) to See a City Anew