By BETH ALTENA
Rockford Police Officers had the use of Rockford’s Valley View Elementary, practicing rapid response to an active shooter situation in a public building. According to Homeland Security, this cooperation between different elements of a community is exactly the way to build a safe, secure and resilient infrastructure between public and private sectors.
Two Rockford officers recently completed intensive training on rapid response situations, and law enforcement here are benefiting from that training in hands-on practice on how to resolve such situations. In the case of the Rockford officers, a day in the school involving volunteers as victims and perpetrators prepares our police in how to best contain a number of situations in a school or other public setting.
Officer Branden Bolema said response to a scenario such as a shooter in a school building, theater, bus stop or other situation has changed dramatically over the years, and ideal response is an ongoing training that evolves as the nature of violence changes in the United States.
According to a training video by Homeland Security, the days of a person entering a public building, taking a suspect into custody and making demands are largely gone. Officers then first secured the perimeter of a structure or area and then waited for specialist teams to arrive and deal with suspects.
Unfortunately, this technique is no longer the best way to handle many of today’s active shooter tragedies, and criminology experts have used each horrific incident as a training tool for law enforcement to improve outcomes. Bolema described, “Ever since Columbine there have been more of the active shooting situations. They used to surround the school and wait for swat. Now we have immediate action and by the time you wait there may be no lives to be saved.”
Homeland Security likewise described the early days of this phenomenon now sadly less rare. The Texas Tower incident of August 1, 1966 in Austin, Texas was a sad milestone where the shooter killed 15 people, and wounded 31, as far as two blocks away. Police then had no plan on how to stop the shooting and ad hoc’d a response by climbing the tower and shooting the perpetrator. A rapid deployment response for law enforcement was not known or taught.
In a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California on July 18, 1984 a shooter killed 21 and injured 11. Officers followed the regular training then in place and waited for a marksman, who killed the shooter.
On Feburary 28, 1997, two bank robbers in North Hollywood, California went in heavily armed with body protection and thousands of rounds. The robber transititoned to an active shooter situation and then, too law enforcement training was insufficient for an acceptable outcome. The robbers left the bank and entered a residential area, wounding 11 police officers and seven civilians. By then law enforcement had learned from past incidents and did deploy rapid response but were simply outgunned. They went to a sporting goods store for better weaponry.
Then the first school shooting in Columbine, April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado. Two student shooters killed 13 and wounded 20. According to Homeland Security this should have been a patrol function where officers on duty were prepared to immediately respond and effectively stop the shooters, but again, training was not yet at that level.
Today officers do learn rapid response, the unfortunately reality in a law enforcement perspective. Rockford officers train with simulated rounds shot from Gloks that do hurt but don’t kill. The police in the school took turns responding to a variety of scenarios, beginning with a shooter who has already shot innocents and is in the act of shooting.
Bolema said the training is intense and officers experience many of the same emotions and stress as they would in a real action. “The adrenaline is there. In the heat of the moment it is quite incredible.” He said the officers actually do get shot in the training, and as in life, you never know what might happen. He said in one of their drills, responding to a barricaded gunman with a hostage, the shooters gun jammed and the drill evolved into a looking through classrooms to try and find the suspect.
“You really do get that tunnel vision you hear about, even though you know it’s training. Afterward people can’t remember if there were four people in the room or two.” He also said behavior by the volunteers can make the practice evolve, if the volunteers act differently than what the drill was supposed to be, officers must make new decisions on what is the appropriate action to take.
The training is the first the Rockford Department of Public Safety did in a school building, and coincides nicely with the completion of all school buildings new safer vestibules, also designed to specifications recommended by experts in the field of public safety. According to Homeland Security, this kind of cooperation and joint preparedness is the best way for local law enforcement departments be best prepared to save lives.