Active shooter: Officers train for the unthinkable
by Jessica Loeding
Jul 22, 2012 | 3377 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Firearms Instructor Sgt. Richey Harrell, center, works with Adairsville Police Department Officer Matt Bogue, right, during active shooter training Tuesday at Adairsville Middle School. Cartersville Medical Center Security Director Bob Goodner plays the gunman in the mock scenario showing how to search rooms during a shooting situation.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Firearms Instructor Sgt. Richey Harrell, center, works with Adairsville Police Department Officer Matt Bogue, right, during active shooter training Tuesday at Adairsville Middle School. Cartersville Medical Center Security Director Bob Goodner plays the gunman in the mock scenario showing how to search rooms during a shooting situation. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Adairsville Police Officer Jason Brownlow shines a flashlight into the eyes of Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jonathan White during a portion of active shooter training focused on different flashlight techniques.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Adairsville Police Officer Jason Brownlow shines a flashlight into the eyes of Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jonathan White during a portion of active shooter training focused on different flashlight techniques. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Bartow County Sheriff's Office Capt. Mike Shinall demonstrates Monday the "Groucho" walk, which is used to approach a situation quietly, during an active shooter training session in Adairsville.
JESSICA LOEDING/The Daily Tribune News
Bartow County Sheriff's Office Capt. Mike Shinall demonstrates Monday the "Groucho" walk, which is used to approach a situation quietly, during an active shooter training session in Adairsville. JESSICA LOEDING/The Daily Tribune News
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*Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series on education and training for local law enforcement.

Thirteen years and 18 miles apart, three suspects in two Colorado shooting sprees leave 24 dead, countless wounded and law enforcement reeling.

In April 1999, two students in Littleton, Colo., entered Columbine High School and opened fire on their peers, killing 12 before taking their own lives. Just minutes after midnight Friday, a doctoral student entered an Aurora, Colo., movie theater heavily armed and fired on the crowd, killing 12 and wounding 58 others.

Friday's shooting was the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2009 shooting in Fort Hood, Texas, when 13 people were killed and more than two dozen wounded and the worst in Colorado since Columbine.

For local law enforcement -- and this reporter, the tragedy in Aurora was made all the more real after undergoing active shooter training held in Adairsville earlier this week.

"Zero Day"

"Andre? Andre, can you pick up the phone?" a 911 dispatcher asks.

I sit stunned, sickened by the scene playing out before me -- two teenage boys armed with large rifles open fire inside a library, shooting classmates at point-blank range.

"Look at all the blood," one says to the other. He then climbs up onto a table and walks over the heads of his peers as they huddle, screaming for mercy below him.

Bile rises in my throat as I watch him open fire on a young man who attempts to flee. And only once do I see the two figures for what they really are -- teenagers -- when one expresses apprehension prior to committing suicide.

Considered the turning point in how law enforcement reacts to active shooter situations, Columbine took the wait-for-SWAT approach of the 1970s and '80s and turned it upside down.

On that April morning, more than 700 emergency personnel responded to the high school where they waited 45 minutes for the Special Weapons and Tactics team to arrive, according to information provided during last week's training. By the time entry was made, the incident was over and 12 dead.

It would take more than three hours for police to locate the bodies of the two teenage suspects.

Following "Zero Day," the video of security footage from inside the school with 911 audio overlaid, Bartow County Sheriff's Office Capt. Mike Shinall explained the two-day training would once again give power to responding officers.

"You've got to take care of business," he said. "We're empowering you again."

Often considered the father of SWAT, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates is credited with creating the specialized team, and as Shinall pointed out, at the time LAPD established the unit law enforcement around the country looked to LAPD for the latest in tactics and training.

Throughout the 1970s and until 1999, most agencies maintained the policy of calling in SWAT in extreme or hostile situations. After Columbine, however, law enforcement was crucified for not responding sooner.

Local agencies now ask that those responding to the call assess the situation and take whatever action is necessary to save lives. And saving lives is the most important aspect of emergency response.

"Your priority being a first responder is what? Saving lives," Shinall stresses repeatedly.

Preparing for the inevitable

Shinall spent the first day of the training teaching background and tactics for active-shooter and hostage-barricaded suspect scenarios.

"We don't have a whole lot in Bartow where a foreign or domestic [terrorist] is going to come in and do a lot of damage to [beyond Plant Bowen and the dam]," he said, but there is concern about a gunman from within the community wreaking havoc in a school or business.

Defined as one or more subjects who participate in a shooting spree, demonstrating their intent to continuously harm others, an active shooter's overriding objective appears to be mass murder rather than criminal conduct such as robbery, hostage taking, etc.

Shinall said the training is part of a statewide effort to have all agencies on the same page for response efforts.

BCSO and agencies from around the county have held training on shooting situations, such as one held last summer at Cass High School, but Shinall said those exercises have met with resistance from some within the community.

Pointing to a cartoon of police entering a town titled "It Won't Happen Here, U.S.A," Shinall asks the class why citizens believe events like those in Colorado wouldn't happen in Bartow County.

Several students believe those who object to training are "liberal," but when asked, I say it is because citizens understand shootings take place but cannot comprehend the reality until it occurs in their community.



"Boom! You're dead"

During the second day of training, we spend hours working in teams of four or five on tactical site surveys -- a sketch of the building and the point of entry; stealth and dynamic modes of response; entering and clearing a room; flashlight techniques; and, finally, a role-playing scenario involving simunitions, or a rubber bullet encased in blue paint.

Armed with bright orange plastic handguns, my team, led by Shinall, begins the second day outside Adairsville Middle School, working on using available cover to maneuver all five members safely to the school's entrance.

"This isn't 'Charlie's Angels,'" Shinall shouts at me as I approach the school with my gun held straight up. "What are you shooting? Birds?"

Once inside the school, we begin working on perfecting the four-person formation and entering and clearing a room.

"Boom! You're dead," Shinall tells me as I step into a hallway without properly clearing the space.

Once the team has grasped formation, we move on to the dynamic, or swift, approach to an active shooter.

"Active shooter in 307!" Shinall shouts at us.

Off we go, but not fast enough.

"People are dying and you are stopping at the doorway!" the captain yells.

And on it goes, over and over, until finally it seems we meet with approval.

Chaos reigns

To end our day, we gear up for force-on-force training using non-lethal simunitions gear, which is similar to paintball but geared specifically for law enforcement and the military.

Rotating the three teams through each of the positions -- contact team, recovery team and "the bad guys," I get a taste of how chaotic an actual shooting event would be.

Gunfire echoes through the school as we make our way through the hallways. It seems to take just seconds for the round to be over -- my team has charged into a hostage situation, no doubt getting those held at gunpoint killed.

"What were you thinking? Did you not hear them yelling, 'We have hostages! We have hostages!'?" Shinall shouts.

Honestly, no, I didn't. Not until it was too late.

As we progress, improvements are made -- until the final round.

Armed to the hilt, my team takes up the part of "bad guys," stationing three of our members in staggered positions down the hallway. When the shooting starts, chaos reigns. Team members become confused in the melee, firing on their own team members, shooting an instructor in the head, firing on those attempting to surrender.

It's confusion -- a mix of gunfire, shouting and adrenaline -- and training for the inevitable is the only way to prepare.

Adairsville Police Chief of Detectives Mike Fitz agrees.

"The benefits of this training are that it increases our knowledge and skills in this critical area, so we can better serve the citizens and children within the communities we work," he said. "It also allows all agencies within Bartow County to train together, so if a bad situation does arise, we will be better able to work with officers from surrounding agencies to more effectively control and eliminate the problem."