23 Jan 2013

My Active Shooter Response Experience

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This piece is not about gun control, mental health or the second amendment. It is about the day I was part of an active shooter response team and became active in the topic.

Thankfully, few law enforcement officers face the situation except for training courses and news feeds. My era of awareness began on April 20, 1999 with the Columbine High School massacre perpetrated by Harris and Klebolt. I recall their names like former classmates at a 5-year reunion. Without Googling, what is the name of the person murdering the victims in Newton, Connecticut? Don’t beat yourself up.

active shooter response

As I was saying, my SWAT experience began in 1990 when the “Surround it and Sound It” approach was used to resolve hostage or in-progress situations. The responding Colorado officers in 1999 did what they were trained to do. That singular incident revolutionized an industry, and maybe that’s why I still recall their names.

Active Shooter Response Tactics

Shortly after Columbine, my agency, a nationally accredited Sheriff’s Office recreated the traditional SWAT team into a Crisis Management Unit (CMU). The CMU was driven by a primary goal of responding to the active shooter. Of course, we responded to everything from bank robbers to barricades, but the active shooter was the response benchmark.

Leading the CMU allowed me to attend specialized courses for addressing active shooting resolutions. The Sheriff’s Office began conducting mandatory in-service trainings for every sworn officer. I developed the curriculum and with fellow SWAT Operators, conducted the classes. Everyone took the training seriously, and a great working relationship with the school board made the environment ripe as a response model.

May 18, 2009 I was in my Patrol Commander’s office with the radio slightly louder than the hum of conversations milling throughout the large open space used for shift briefings, report writing and interacting with others. My attention was tickled as I heard Communications dispatching of possible shots fired at an upper elementary school. The hum went silent.

Officers began walking cautiously towards the exit door, but still waiting to hear the next call that it was a false alert. Of course no one wants to be the guy running full sprint to their patrol car when we all knew there was no way an active shooter could happen “down here.” Sure we trained for it, and purchased equipment, weapons and gear for the moment, but this wasn’t it.

Active shooter response 2

The steady walking turned to trotting, which turned to jogging, and in the few seconds it took for Communications to again dispatch shots fired, we were all “that guy” in full sprint for the patrol car. There were already numerous Patrol officers in their beats, and now the command staff, light-duty, reserve-duty and off-duty were screaming through the streets towards what could not happen here.

What took minutes seemed like hours, and every blue-haired old lady was on the roadway. My mind methodically rehearsed every training, tactic and time I practiced, read or thought about this moment that could never happen here. I had served 16 years in SWAT, and left CMU with my Patrol Division command assignment.

The Professional Mind Takes Over

I knew the irony was this was not going to be a SWAT operation. I was in the cavalry, and it was not dressed in OD green TDUs. Radio traffic was remarkably calm considering the situation, which either meant everyone knew what to do, or no one was going to take the lead. At that moment a voice of hope bellowed out over the radio. It was my newly promoted Lieutenant. He was taking the lead, and I was anxiously awaiting his first command.

All the years of instructing in-service active shooter courses, the PowerPoints and hand-outs I developed, all the officers I encouraged to stay prepared. It all came down to this first radio transmission strategically placing his officers in the right places for the right reasons. Then he said it. “Form a perimeter.” My heart was broken, but my accelerator was working as I continued the approach. It wasn’t his fault. This was not supposed to happen here.

I arrived to the upper elementary located within a small and closely-woven Cajun community to join a fleet of whites with flashing blues and reds. Radios scratching, stored-away ballistic vests resurfacing, and an energetic buzz of soon to be controlled chaos reverberated through the thick humid south Louisiana summer air.

Moving to a singular point of entry, I radioed to rally. As four arrived, four went in. The faces on some officers were set for duty, while others dreaded the count. Regardless, no one backed up or backed down. Despite that initial radio slip, the response was as we planned, as we trained and as I hoped.

You know the scenario; bullied kid, another’s weapon, handwritten notes, camouflage clothing and an execution of the plan after the bell rang. By God’s grace no one was killed by this 15 year old’s attack. As we arrived quickly, this boy fled, never attempting to confront the officers, then alone for a brief moment in a maintenance room; shot himself.

My sense of duty in the face of unimaginable tragedy always triumphs emotion, but this day the death of a child, the thousands of arriving parents and families, knowing my son had cousins somewhere in the chaos, and evacuating the hundreds of children to a secondary sight for accounting and home-processing took its toll.

Still, I could not shake the sadness of not only a young boy killing himself; but for the days, weeks, years, and lifetime of influencing forces bringing a child to that critical decision. Discovered later in his handwritten notes included planning more specific than I have seen in some SWAT ops orders.

An excerpt from his operations plan read, “First, I will tell my art class teacher that I had to go to the bathroom. Then I would go to the last stall and ‘gear up.” To think it is understandable, we all get angry. To document it is disturbing, we all know limits. To execute it is unimaginable, it could never happen here, and yet I cannot recall his name.

Here is a video from the day I got my first active shooter response experience. I hope it will be the last.

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