It’s a scenario no one wants to think about — a lone gunman, a bullied student who has reached the breaking point, a jealous husband out for blood — and surely, no one really believes it could ever happen here.
Just as they thought at Virginia Tech, or at Columbine High School, or as recently as two weeks ago at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif.
No one wants to think about it happening in their back yard, but no one wants to be unprepared if it does happen.
Last week, members of local law enforcement agencies, including the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office, the Winnsboro Department of Public Safety and the Department of Natural Resources, sat through intense training sessions and ran through grueling exercises preparing for just such a possibility — the dreaded “active shooter” scenario.
“We do these exercises all over the state,” said Bill Graham, a retired State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agent, who, with his partner, George Booth, conducted the training, “and every time, the officers just don’t believe how behind the curve they are when they come into a situation like this.”
Graham was sitting at a desk in a darkened classroom at Fairfield Central High School, a school empty during last week’s spring break, the outline of his solid, imposing frame silhouetted by the double windows that looked out over the Highway 321 Bypass. As he waited for officers to respond to this particular scenario, Graham idly patted a handgun that sat just within his reach on the adjacent desktop.
Graham was playing the role of angry husband in this exercise, who had come onto campus armed, agitated and looking for his wife.
After several moments sitting in the shadows, the door swung wide and a half-dozen heavily armed police officers swept into the room. The officers quickly fanned out, one or more shouting “Gun!” as they checked the nooks and corners of the room for any additional threats. In less than 5 seconds, they had formed a semi-circle along the perimeter of the room and were beginning to engage with the gunman.
While their entrance into the scenario was similar, each team of officers that ran through the exercise handled their interactions with Graham differently. Some teams chose to hang back near the perimeter, while others came within feet of the gunman. Some teams issued an unbroken string of shouted commands at the gunman, ordering him to move away from the weapon and put his hands up, while others attempted something close to a rational dialogue.
In nearly every run-through, however, Graham was able to squeeze off one “lethal round” into a police officer before other officers could react and neutralize him.
That is not the outcome anyone is looking for.
“Yeah, you got me,” Graham said to one team, “but I got one of your guys.”
As the exercise continued, and teams adapted to the situation, Graham’s character was frequently eliminated before he could fire a round.
The scenario is a difficult one for officers, Graham pointed out, because law enforcement is trained to keep the peace. They are not Navy Seals, he said. That point was echoed Friday afternoon by Brad Douglas, a captain with the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office who participated in the training.
“We’re not the military,” Douglas said. “We don’t go into a situation just to start killing people.”
The object, of course, is to diffuse the situation and keep as many people alive as possible. Up until the infamous Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999, the prevailing wisdom was for officers to suit up, surround the situation and wait for SWAT teams to arrive. But that can be time consuming, Douglas said; and at Columbine that proved disastrous. Now, Douglas said, officers are trained to go toward gunfire, and only when the gunfire stops do officers fall back into search mode.
“The main thing is to isolate and contain the shooter,” Douglas said.
Over the course of the day, officers participated in numerous other scenarios, Douglas said, including clearing a large area — working from room to room, hallway to hallway in order to locate and isolate the gunman. Officers also ran through a scenario where the gunman was among a group of bystanders — students, in this case; which presents a very delicate situation.
By the end of the day, Douglas said, he was most impressed by the way this diverse group of officers, many of whom had never worked together before, were able to move fluidly as a unit in and out of some dicey situations.
“It’s good to know our agency is proactive enough to go through this kind of training,” he said. “We were very fortunate to have this training made available to us.
“It’s the kind of thing you plan for and prepare for and hope it never happens,” Douglas added. “But it can happen anywhere.”