Police train to prevent another Sandy Hook
The 911 call came in just after 3:10 p.m.
A business owner requested that police stand by as he fired an employee.
As officers arrived, the employee shot his boss in the back – yelling “bang bang!” and pointing a toy gun. He then ran into a back room where he had tied up some of his co-workers.
The shooter had two demands before he would let any hostages go: He wanted a sausage and cheese pizza, and he wanted said pizza delivered by helicopter.
It was all part of an “active shooter” training that the Mukilteo Police Department held for its police officers and other first responders on Aug. 15 at the Sterling Business Park at the corner of 44th Avenue W. and 84th Street S.W.
An active shooter is someone who is killing or attempting to kill others, usually with guns.
Patrol squads trained throughout the day, practicing their responses, so that they’ll know what to do if or when a shooting like at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech or Aurora Mall ever happens here.
“Anything can turn into an active shooter situation,” Officer Cheol Kang said. “It could be an isolated incident or a mass shooting. The first responders to the scene have to do something to stop the threat.”
The Police Department has held several active shooter trainings since Columbine. The last was in 2008. Officers also meet with Mukilteo School District educators annually to go over active-shooter responses, such as evacuations and lockdowns.
The scenario-based training on Aug. 15 covered how to safely enter rooms, move as a team, scan rooms for threats, disarm a shooter, and mitigate harm to victims – all done by making split-second decisions.
Each squad of 4-5 officers practiced these tactics and techniques in up to five scenarios. Each was set up like a 911 call from dispatchers: a welfare check or a civil standby gone wrong.
“Each squad already works together,” said Officer Joe Hamilton, a training instructor. “They’ve already gone on calls with each other in real life. In training, that [teamwork is] tested.”
Officers were armed with pellet guns and a ballistic shield to protect themselves from “active threats” – fellow officers pretending to be aggressors.
Some scenarios also involved “hostages,” portrayed by volunteers, or booby traps – a pretend trip wire or bomb strapped to a chair.
The scenarios played out like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, where each decision altered the outcome.
Once on a call, many of the officers said they were “in the zone.” It didn’t matter that it was just practice. They reacted as if the gunshots they heard and the hostages they saw were real.
“My adrenaline kicks in as soon as you go in and you hear the firing,” Officer A.J. Dodd said. “It means it’s time to go to work and do what you’re supposed to do.”
They take the training seriously because they know that any call they go on could rapidly turn into what many said is a “worst-case scenario.”
“It’s not something you have to psyche yourself up for,” said Officer Michael Rexach, new to the department. “With the regular calls you go on everyday, we know that any minute something can turn really quick.
“Any time you get hit with an airsoft gun, OK, that could have been real that time.”
The training not only reviewed police tactics, it also covered teamwork and communication. Officers had to practice negotiating and determining why a shooter was out to kill.
“I want officers to not rush in, and actually work as a team and come out safely,” Hamilton said. “I want to get them thinking outside of the box and working out problems.”
Though they had pellet guns, Kang said the officers’ most valuable weapon was not a weapon at all: It was their words.
“If you don’t have to result to physical confrontation, that’s a win,” he said. “It’s not all about fight[ing] and cuffing; it’s communication. That’s our most important tool we have as law enforcement officers.”
To make the scenarios more realistic, a SNOCOM van was parked nearby. Dispatchers set up inside to radio officers and relay each scenario as if it were an actual 911 call – after all, they need the practice, too.
The training was held in a vacant building with a “maze of rooms” at the business park. Officers were moved to different rooms for each scenario, so that they wouldn’t become too familiar with their surroundings.
“It kept the scenarios as real as possible, because a lot of times police don’t know the layout of the inside of a building,” Hamilton said. “That way, this isn’t easy because they remember a room. They have to stop and think every time.”
Hamilton has been an active-shooter instructor since 2003.
After each scenario, he debriefed officers. They explained why they took an action or held back, and where they could improve.
Hamilton said he was impressed with how well the officers, dispatchers and firefighters did. If they made mistakes, they worked them out and improved in the following scenarios.
“The squads did really well,” Hamilton said. “It’s a good thing to see them work with equipment and work through a scenario and have the desired outcome.
“I feel that, as a department, we are more prepared to deal with a major event if or when it occurs.”