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School Shooting Changed Police Response Tactics

Almost an hour passed once Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their killing spree at Columbine High school before any law-enforcement personnel entered the building. During that time, the pair killed 15, including themselves, and critically injured 21.

Police were following the course of action they had always been taught to handle tough situations like this. First, secure the perimeter; then send in the SWAT team. At Columbine, police weren’t acting incompetently, but rather they needed new tools to deal with a new situation, said Terry Nichols, assistant director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at the Texas State University at San Marcos.

“Within our local police department, we recognized the lack of training and preparedness that our first responders had to respond to an active shooter like the ones at Columbine,” said Nichols, who is a retired police commander.

He said also noticed that there were no training programs to instruct officers on how to deal with an active shooter – that is, a person who, like Klebold and Harris, is intent on actively harming people, not taking hostages.

So Nichols and a few others founded the ALERRT Center, with some grant money from the Justice Department, the Texas governor’s office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center has been training law enforcement officers from around the country since 2001 to deal with active shooters more effectively.

That correct protocol, by the way, is to send two to three officers into the building right away with the sole mission of neutralizing the gunman, even at the expense of the injured.

ALERRT’s course covers the theory behind combating active shooters, as well as several terrorism and active-shooter case studies. Students, usually about 30 per class, then move on to tactical training, including how to move and shoot at the same time, how to avoid IEDs and booby traps – even how to ensure officers don’t end up shooting other officers.

“We sometimes get pigeon holed into active shooter training, where people think their officers will never use the things they learn here,” Nichols said. “But tactics the things we teach are skills that officers can use in their day-to-day jobs, not just tactics that are good for dealing with an active shooter.”

Training exercises are often conducted in school buildings, which are one of the few institutions that are reliably closed for a significant portion of the year, Nichols said. Schools also, unfortunately, also find themselves common targets for active shooters.

But they aren’t the only places active shooters target. The shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 highlight the fact that active shooters don’t limit themselves to educational facilities. Indeed, active shooter events even happen at hospitals.

“We’ve still got to get it in the public’s mind that active shooters can happen anywhere. … You shouldn’t box it in that it only happens at school,” Nichols said.

As a result, Nichols has noticed that more private industry security companies are requesting the trainings from ALERRT, he said.

“Early on, we were very adverse to training private firms,” he said. “But then we realized: These folks are truly the first responders at these events, so why would we not want to train them? We’ve kind of done a 180 on training private security.”

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