Cleveland Elementary School ... Columbine High School ... Virginia Tech University ... Tucson, Ariz. ... Utoya, Norway ... Fort Hood, Texas ... Aurora, Colo. ... Sandy Hook Elementary School. Too many places, too many times, too many victims. The list of mass shootings continues to grow. The unspeakable violence is becoming too common.
The Lodi Police Department has been training to deal with an “active shooter” since 2000. The law enforcement philosophy of surrounding the place and waiting until SWAT arrives to deal with the threat changed after Columbine. Agencies determined that quick, decisive action was the best tactic to deal with suspects moving from room-to-room assaulting people. The strategy has evolved from letting SWAT handle it, to waiting until 4 or 5 officers were on scene and then going in, to where we are today — the first officer to arrive immediately seeks out and engages the suspect. No waiting.
Active shooters share many traits, the most glaring being they rarely take on the police. They enjoy hurting defenseless victims, but when they suddenly realize they will have to deal with people who shoot back, they usually take their life. A final act of cowardice.
We’ve conducted very realistic and stress-filled training for our officers over the years. The complicated, large-scale scenarios have taken place at sites ranging from the old Victor meat plant on Highway 99 to the California State University, Stanislaus campus to local schools while the kids were out on break.
In the interest of realism, the scenarios included smoke-filled hallways, blaring fire alarms, dozens of actors, flashing lights, and simulated gunshots. The demanding environment was designed to test the officers’ tactics as well as their mindset. They struggle to think clearly while their hearts are pounding and adrenaline is racing through their bodies. SWAT won’t be there for a while, so we emphasize it will be the school resource officer, the traffic officer, the beat officer, or the detective dealing with the suspect initially.
In addition to our people, we’ve run area college, university and school district police officers through the scenarios over the years.
Our specialized units train several times a year on how to deal with a situation like this. We also send officers to training courses around the state and require that they share the knowledge they’ve gained with fellow employees during department-wide training.
Unfortunately no matter how we train, it will usually take a few minutes for officers to arrive. In the case of a school, the first line of defense will always be the teachers, the staff and the school resource officer. The heroic teachers in Connecticut saved dozens of lives with their quick thinking and bravery.
It is difficult to predict when the next active shooter will strike, but it makes sense for people to come up with a plan for what to do if they happen to be somewhere when an event of this nature takes place. You or your loved ones should have some idea what to do if you hear shooting at the mall, a school, a theater or a church. Come up with a very basic plan for your family and make sure everyone, including the kids, understands it.
Simple things count, so if you’re at a store or the movies, take a second and note where the exits are located. Decide where you’ll meet if you get separated in a crisis. Figure out that, based on where the suspect is and the layout of the building you’re in, should you run or hunker down? Agree that if mom or dad says, “Go!” everyone goes.
Businesses should come up with a strategy as well. Know where you can hide, which doors you can lock from the inside, where you can go for help. The cops should be there in a few minutes but a good plan will do nothing but help you.
I’ll leave the debate over gun control, mental health, and society’s morals for others. I’m trying to inform, not opine. But we can all agree it’s too bad we’ve reached the point in history that we have to develop a defensive strategy for a visit to the mall.
Finally, this is the holiday season and we should do what we can to keep a madman from dimming the lights on the tree. But we should also be mindful that there is another guy dressed in black military clothes sitting in his living room somewhere in the world intently watching the coverage of the tragedy in Connecticut. It isn’t a question of if; it’s a question of when.