Officers in Arkansas trained to rush in, confront a gunman, agencies say

Columbine attack changed police handling of shootings

Posted: March 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: March 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Police lead students away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 after a gunman opened fire inside, and an on-duty deputy failed to act. In Arkansas, law enforcement departments say they teach their officers that in such cases the first officer on the scene should immediately enter the building and confront the gunman.

As questions arise over one law enforcement agency’s response to the mass shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Fla., police departments across Arkansas say they expect their officers to confront a gunman immediately instead of waiting for a tactical team.

Passing seconds can cost innocent lives, officials said, so the departments teach officers to stop an active gunman first before tending to the wounded.

“They are expected to go in and stop the loss of life,” said Fayetteville police Sgt. Anthony Murphy, describing the agency’s protocol on an active shooter.

The Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead, sparking protests and a national debate on firearms.

In the aftermath, one law enforcement agency’s handling of the shooting has faced criticism. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel reported that an on-duty deputy at the school did not go inside to confront the gunman while the shooting was in progress. According to the sheriff, Scot Peterson, the deputy, was outside the building for four minutes while the shooting took place.

Israel reported that he decided to suspend Peterson without pay pending an internal investigation. He said the deputy chose to resign.

Peterson’s attorney said in a statement that claims that the deputy acted cowardly and unprofessionally were untrue. The attorney said Peterson believed the shooting was coming from outside the school buildings, according to media reports.

In Arkansas, law enforcement departments said they teach their officers that the first officer on scene should immediately confront a gunman by entering a building alone, if he has information the gunman is still active and causing harm inside.

Officials say the protocol is a major shift from what officers were taught more than 20 years ago before the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The massacre, police said, reshaped how departments handled and trained for active-shooter scenarios.

“Columbine is what single-handedly changed everything,” said Conway police Maj. Chris Harris, who recently attended training on how to communicate with other agencies in such a situation.

Before Columbine, active-shooter training directed officers to set up a perimeter and wait for a tactical team, police said. Now, Arkansas police departments say officers are trained to enter a building and engage a gunman as soon as possible, even if an officer goes in alone.

Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the Columbine shooting sparked a whole movement of active-shooter training, and described the training as common among departments of any size.

Addressing the criticism of Peterson, the Broward County deputy, Myers said many of the specifics of the officer’s actions are unknown to the public and that the agency should be afforded the chance to conduct a thorough investigation.

Officials say police agencies have learned from recent shootings as well. After a 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Harris said, authorities learned that police departments, fire departments and ambulance services all need to coordinate in the immediate aftermath of the violence.

After a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, school districts changed the way they viewed school security and put a focus on teaching students to flee the building if gunfire breaks out, said Ron Self, director of the safety and security department at the Little Rock School District.

“Newtown is really what changed the landscape of how we respond inside the school,” he said.

In the past, Self said educators were trained to go into a lockdown procedure, which included locking doors, turning off lights and moving students to a place in the room where they could not be seen.

Current training directs Little Rock School District educators and students to flee the building and avoid the gunfire.

“That’s our main goal,” he said. During an active-shooter situation, students and teachers should look for nontraditional ways out of a building, such as breaking windows to flee, Self said.

If running away is not an option, Self said, the district instructs people to deny access to a gunman by barricading doors.

Then, as a last step, students and teachers should defend themselves if confronted by a gunman, he said. Books, science equipment or a computer monitor can all be thrown at a perpetrator, Self mentioned.

Police officials recommended the same protocol for average citizens facing a shooter. If forced to defend themselves, authorities recommend people use improvised weapons or distract the gunman by throwing items.

When asked if school security could be armed in the future, Self said that conversation has been had in the Little Rock district, but there are no plans in place.

Unlike school resource officers who are sworn law enforcement officials and armed, school security guards do not carry pepper spray or Tasers, he said.

In North Little Rock, training Sgt. Larry Behnke said the department’s active-shooter protocol starts with police stopping the killing. That means either neutralizing, distracting or isolating a gunman.

Several factors, he said, go into an officer’s decision to enter a building. Is the shooter still active? What are witnesses saying? How many gunmen are there?

After police stop the threat, Behnke said, an officer would focus on providing medical care to the wounded, trying to stop the bleeding by using aids such as tourniquets.

The third objective is to get the wounded to a medical facility, Behnke said.

The model, he said, is fluid and can be applied to mass shootings at schools, malls and places of worship.

“Every place is going to give you a different challenge,” he said, describing how a shooting at an elementary school would differ from a shooting at a mall on a Friday night.

In an active-shooter situation, waiting even 20 seconds before entering a building can cost innocent victims their lives, said Murphy, the Fayetteville police sergeant. In preparation, he said, officers in his city take tours of schools and libraries.

In Little Rock, police applied tourniquets on victims of the mass shooting at the Power Ultra Lounge last summer, where 28 people were injured but nobody died, said Little Rock officer Henry Moore, who works in the agency’s training division.

Unlike an active-shooter situation, authorities said, the Little Rock nightclub shooting involved street gangs.

“If people are dying in there, it’s our job to go in there and get them,” Moore said.

“We want to control bleeding,” said Moore, who is also a member of the department’s tactical team.

According to Harris, the Little Rock department teaches its officers to isolate, distract or neutralize a shooter, which could mean using deadly force or turning the incident into a hostage situation. If a shooter is isolated or confronted, data show there’s a good possibility he will kill himself, he said.

Several officers in Jonesboro, which is in Craighead County where four students and a teacher were killed in a 1998 shooting, have received training on how to apply tourniquets and other immediate medical care, said Sgt. Lyle Waterworth. He credited the training with saving lives.

The department, he said, plans to have all of its officers receive the training by the end of the year.

After the 1998 shooting, Waterworth said, people in the area are vigilant and alert to the possibility of a mass shooting happening again.

Two decades ago, Harris with the Conway police said, he never would have imagined he would be conducting training on shootings at churches.

“It’s the world we live in right now,” he said.

Information for this article was contributed by wire reports.