Fla. police department training for active shooter in schools

"We can't afford to wait for the SWAT team when innocent people can be dying inside"

By Jerome Burdi
The Sun-Sentinel
 5 phases of the active shooter 
BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. The 911 call is placed: There's a man with a gun in a school. Police rush to the scene.

Faced with this scenario in the past, police had been trained to secure the building perimeter. But that changed following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, where police waited 40 minutes for SWAT teams to enter and students were slain.

Since then, police have developed what's known as "active shooter" training, in which first responders learn to confront or diffuse a violent situation while waiting for specialized negotiators and shooters.

Boynton Beach police, along with officers from other agencies, ended two two-day sessions Thursday at Boynton Beach High School with the Texas-based, federally funded program Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALERRT.

After their classroom training, officers went through scenarios using paint pellets in place of bullets. Each team was a unit taught to stick together despite the rush of freed hostages that broke right through them in one exercise.

In another exercise, a man pointed a gun at a hostage. Tired of negotiation, he shot a hostage in the classroom. Officers rushed in.

"We can't afford to wait for the SWAT team when innocent people can be dying inside," training Sgt. Sedrick Aiken said. "Our guys who arrive first need to have the know-how, how to deal with the situation."

The Virginia Tech killings in April were a reminder of the need to be prepared, police said.

ALERRT Director of Operations John Curnutt, a SWAT team member in Hays County, Texas, said interagency cooperation is a crucial part of training.

"If a neighboring agency is close by, they'll be better suited to go in and do something," Curnutt said.

Speed is the key to responding to a crisis.

He yelled directions to the class members: "No need for cheerleading, there's work to be done," when officers watched another carefully cuff a suspect. "Victim in the middle."

Officer Charles Turco tried to negotiate his way out of a scenario of a gunman with hostages, something he's never done. He was unsuccessful. Then came the gunfire. He said the new tactics he's learned have given him confidence.

"Sometimes we're faced with things we're not really responsible for," Turco said. "I would try to do my best."

Some officers were shot in the process of saving hostages.

Sgt. David Garcia, of the Washington State University police, said the ALERRT training conducted there showed him how to battle the unpredictable.

"The law enforcement mindset has been to hurry up and wait," Garcia said. "With an active shooter if you do that, there'll be so much destruction."

Copyright 2007 Sun-Sentinel Company

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