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Learning to pass by chaos

Area law enforcement agencies train to stop active shooters

BRATTLEBORO—Tyson Kinne threads an orange cord through the barrel of a gun. The cord informs fellow officers that the firearm is unloaded, explains the Vermont State Police detective trooper.

Kinne, part of an eight-member Vermont State Police’s Tactical Support Unit which trains law enforcement statewide, is based in the Brattleboro barracks. He is among 44 members of local law enforcement agencies who are taking part in the empty corridors of Brattleboro Union High School on this day, Dec. 27, to fine-tune skills they hope never to use.

Personnel from the Brattleboro, Wilmington, and Hinsdale, N.H., police departments, as well as the Windham County Sheriff’s Department and Vermont State Police, gathered to practice taking down someone who is actively killing people in a crowded place.

The next police officer in line hands his handgun to Kinne.

“Don’t scratch it, it shoots bad enough already,” an officer ribs as Kinne threads the orange cord.

Officer Michael Cable, who joined the Brattleboro Police force earlier this year, signs the attendance sheet. Today marks his first big training with BPD.

Law enforcement people call it an active-shooter situation.

Most parents would call it their worst nightmare.

A grim history

“It doesn’t have to be a gun, and it doesn’t have to be a school,” explained Det. Sgt. Steve Otis, the lead trainer and a member of the VSP Arson Investigation Unit stationed at the Rockingham barracks.

Active-shooter situations can occur in schools, workplaces, malls, movie theaters, or anywhere people gather en masse, Otis said.

The training is based on best practices developed by the non-profit National Tactical Officers Association. Otis said the training keeps all levels of Vermont law enforcement “on the same page” when responding to a shooter in a crowded place.

In Vermont, the first on scene could be a patrol officer, trooper, Department of Motor Vehicles officer, off-duty deputy, or a game warden, said Otis.

Otis has trained officers for over 10 years and estimated 75 percent of Vermont law enforcement have participated in the active shooter response training.

During a PowerPoint presentation, Otis offered a brief history of mass shootings in America, from Charles Whitman — the bell-tower sniper who killed 14 people and wounded dozens of others at the University of Texas in 1966 — to the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack that left 20 students and six teachers dead in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

And Otis was quick to remind his students that Vermont has seen this type of violence. He referenced the August 2006 shooting at Essex Elementary School, which left two people dead and three wounded.

During a 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the gunman chained doors closed before “herding people like sheep” into the locked corridors, said Otis. That incident, which left 32 dead and 17 wounded, remains the deadliest mass shooting incident in U.S. history.

Police used bolt cutters to sever the chains.

Otis asked how many officers carried bolt cutters in their patrol cars. Only the officers from Hinsdale answered affirmatively. Otis said they were the first in his 10 years of training to raise their hands.

“A quick response is usually what limits [the killing],” said Otis.

That wasn’t always the case, however.

“Columbine changed everything,” Otis said.

In April 1999, students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris rampaged through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 13 people and wounding 26 before committing suicide.

Prior to Columbine, Otis said, law enforcement’s modus operandi was to surround a building and wait for a SWAT team.

Unfortunately, this protocol allowed Harris and Klebold almost an hour of uninterrupted killing time while officers waited outside, said Otis.

“It’s better to do something than sit there and do nothing,” he said.

Taking action

An active shooter requires immediate action by law enforcement, Otis continued.

A goal with active shooters is switching their focus away from civilians, said Otis. “Get the bad guys shooting at the good guys with the bulletproof vests.”

Otis outlined the methods that first responders should use when entering a building to find an active shooter. He discussed how to move as a unit down a hallway and check rooms.

The main focus of the first responders is to stop the shooter, he stressed.

Although it goes against all instinct, the first responders must steel themselves to pass by homemade explosives or — even more difficult — the dead and wounded, said Otis.

The carnage that officers witness during a mass shooting will probably be the worst they will ever see, said Otis. But the longer officers take to find the shooter, the more opportunity the suspect has to kill.

“[Delaying] enables them to shoot people who can’t shoot back,” said Otis.

Departments should also develop a way for off-duty officers to identify themselves when they arrive on scene, said Otis. An off-duty officer without uniform or credentials looks like a suspect carrying a gun.

Schools and other institutions must also feel willing to have “realistic conversations” around developing a response plan to an active shooter, said Otis.

The Brattleboro Police Department has conducted these training exercises for four years, said Capt. Michael Fitzgerald. This year, the department decided to invite neighboring communities.

Fitzgerald said that he was amazed that so many neighboring agencies sent officers — so many that the trainers hosted two sessions.

Fitzgerald said 24 of Brattleboro Police Department’s 28 officers attended the trainings. Each department participated on its “own dime,” he said.

It makes sense for different towns and agencies to train together, he said. If a school shooting happened in Windham County or neighboring New Hampshire, the law-enforcement response would be multi-agency.

When asked what can be done to prevent mass violence, Fitzgerald said there are “several prongs.”

At schools, teachers serve as the first line of support and intervention. They know their students the best, said Fitzgerald.

With every violent incident, he added, institutions and police forces learn new tactics and prepare for the next event.

“Which is unfortunate,” Fitzgerald said.

The BPD will host a multi-agency table-top exercise Jan. 29 to help train administrators and heads of departments on active shooting situations, said Fitzgerald.

The training will include BPD, members of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, town officials, Rescue Inc., the Red Cross, and local hospitals.

Taking down a shooter can happen in minutes, said Fitzgerald. Responding to the ramifications of the shooter’s actions, however, can take months.

When children shoot children, said Fitzgerald, “that just breaks all realms of innocence.”

“We must be ready, mentally and physically,” he said.

The damage done

In the corridor behind Cable, his fellow Brattleboro officers practice clearing rooms in teams of two.

“Trust your guy, and don’t mess around here,” says a trainer as he demonstrated a maneuver.

Cable, who started solo patrols on Sept. 9, stands ramrod straight, hands clasped behind his back, as he speaks to a reporter.

He participated in similar trainings at the police academy this year. This training is useful for new recruits and veteran officers, he says.

Law-enforcement trainers and supervisors use sanitized phrases like “active shooter,” “target-rich environment,” “rounds exchanged,” or “passing by chaos.”

In a small community like Brattleboro, however, the officers will pass by chaos and the dead — neighbors, cousins, friends’ children.

How does an officer prepare for that?

Standing silently, Cable studies a point in the distance and breathes deeply.

“That’s a very difficult question,” he says.

He takes another long pause.

It comes down to having faith, Cable says — faith in the people coming behind the first response team.

And, he says, knowing that friends and family who are hurt will be in good hands.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #235 (Wednesday, January 1, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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