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SALISBURY, Md. — Two hostages stand haplessly at the classroom entrance and another lies seriously wounded beside a wall outside. “Don’t come down here, I’m telling you — I’ll kill ‘em,” a man inside the classroom shouts to officers snaking down the corridor with guns drawn. Negotiations fizzle, the officers yell to the hostages to get down, and the gunman is taken out in a swift gunfight.
The drill is part of a training program the FBI is helping run for local law enforcement agents nationwide. Acting on a White House directive after last December’s Connecticut school massacre, and partnering with a Texas-based training center, the FBI has been teaching best practices for responding to mass shootings.
The goal is to promote a standardized strategy as local police departments — invariably the first officers to arrive — respond to such shootings. Besides the tactical drills, conferences run by FBI field offices are intended to prepare local agencies for the challenges of an active shooter emergency and to let them know federal help, including extra manpower to interview witnesses and collect evidence, is available to them.
“It’s not capability — it’s capacity,” said Katherine Schweit, an FBI official involved in organizing the training program. “Every police department, sheriff’s department has the ability to do interviews and to do evidence collection ... But we can bring capacity. We can bring 100 agents to a scene in a day and do hundreds of interviews, and have done that time and time again.”
Localized training programs have proliferated in recent years amid high-profile mass shootings in places such as Tucson, Ariz., where then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded by a lone gunman in 2011 while meeting with constituents, and in Aurora, Colo., where a man killed 12 in a movie theater.
After the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, President Barack Obama directed the FBI to train local law enforcement to develop a more consistent response and signed legislation formalizing the agency’s authority to assist in mass killing investigations.
The FBI then partnered with an active-shooter training program — ALERRT, or Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Team — which was created in Texas after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and receives Justice Department funding.
The bureau sent about 100 tactical instructors to Texas for training and returned them into the field to run exercises, alongside ALERRT trainers, for local officers. Officials say the partnership helps spread ALERRT’s teachings to more officers than the program could cover on its own. It also lends the program what Schweit calls “the imprimatur of national support and standards.”
Officials hope the partnership lasts for as long as funding remains available.
The two-day, 16-hour tactical session — like the one held on a college campus in Maryland last week — opens with classroom instruction and ends with role-playing drills. Officers and instructors are divided into gunmen, responders, hostages and victims and are given real-life scenarios that test their ability to enter a building and confront a shooter.
The officers, in blue protective helmets, fired non-lethal projectiles from lookalike handguns — enough to make a loud “pop” and sting on impact. An instructor filmed the drill so participants could study their mistakes later.
“In that kind of event, you can never get to the point where it’s real life. Always in back of the officer’s head, they know, ‘I’m not actually going to die. No one’s being killed,’” said J. Pete Blair, the ALERRT program’s research director and an associate professor at Texas State University-San Marcos.
But, he added, “It’s as close as we can get to the real thing without people getting hurt.”
The drills reinforce the now-standard protocol of engaging the shooter directly instead of waiting for specialized SWAT teams, even if the officer’s weapon is less powerful than the gunman’s and even if studies show a solo officer will himself be shot one-third of the time, said Chris Combs, who runs the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center, the headquarters command post for major emergencies.
Many of the shootings end before police arrive or stop once the gunman hears an officer approaching.
“You don’t need negotiators, you don’t have time for SWAT teams, you need to get in there as fast as possible and stop the killing,” Combs, also involved in organizing the partnership, said in an interview. The willingness to go in alone is a “horrible personal decision,” but must be weighed against the potential carnage inside a building, he added.
That’s a reversal from past training that focused on containing the scene, controlling the perimeter and calling for SWAT help. That strategy, though widely accepted at the time, was criticized as too slow and painstaking after the Columbine shootings.
“Now because of those lessons learned, because of the willingness to be introspective of what took place, tactics have evolved, and they’re continuing to evolve,” said Arvada, Colo., police Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, who was among the first responders at the Columbine shootings.
Under the new initiative, the FBI is making available its behavioral analysts to consult with local police agencies concerned that someone in their community might be planning a shooting.
The 56 field offices are running table-top exercises and conferences to augment the tactical drills.
The conferences cover the added challenges posed by mass killings, such as collecting enormous amounts of evidence, interviewing hundreds of witnesses and sifting for explosive devices, said Stephen Vogt, who runs the Baltimore office. Interacting with the national news media also is discussed.
“We had hundreds of satellite trucks in a small, rural community that clogged our streets. People came from far and wide to see our memorials; traffic was a nightmare,” recalled Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe.
Brian Waller, the operations commander for the Salisbury University police department, said he was re-evaluating his department’s plans after sitting in on some of the training.
“There’s kind of an explanation or some support, evidence, statistics, behind what they teach when we discuss the different tactics,” Waller said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, this is what Joe came up with.’ There’s research behind it, there’s experience.”
Mike Sotka, the FBI SWAT team leader in Baltimore and one of the tactical instructors, acknowledged that the training could be “very overwhelming” for patrol officers. But he said those are the officers who most need to be taught the proper response — all in the same, standardized way.
“We are asking patrolmen to go in and do a hostage rescue of hundreds of people, in some situations, with minimal amount of training when we ask SWAT teams to train their whole career for that.”