Ind. officers train for stress response

"You've got to be freethinkers," Heffner tells the group. "Think on your feet."

By Jeff Wiehe
The News-Sentinel

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Just days after an 18-year-old made global headlines by shooting eight people in a Finland high school, four officers with the Allen County Sheriff's Department wound their way through the dark hallways of a former mental health facility in an attempt to simulate a response to such a situation.

(AP Photo/John Harrell)
The group followed sounds of gunfire echoing through the empty corridors, each reverberation of fire making the officers change direction, pick up the pace or peek around corners looking for whoever was shooting off a gun.

"The school shooting thing ebbs and flows," said Capt. Shawn Lawhorn, one of the instructors helping conduct the training, which is to help officers respond to an active shooter in any type of building, whether it is a school, church, hospital or office building. "You don't really hear about it anymore unless they kill 20 or 30 people. It never really goes away."

Eventually the group turned a corner and came face to face with a man standing along the wall of a dark hallway, a place they had passed moments before without seeing him. They spotted a gun on the ground at his feet and commanded him to get down. When he began to put his hands on the ground, a rookie thought he was reaching for the weapon and "shot" him three times in the chest. None of his colleagues saw the man reaching for the gun.

Luckily, the man shot was a veteran on the force role-playing as the active shooter, and the rookie was equipped only with a paintball gun, though one 400-foot-per-second round from it can pack a sting.

It was the rookie's first run through the drill, designed to simulate the stress and confusion officers might face during such a shooting incident. Though only a drill, members of the group are sweating despite the fact it's 40 or 50 degrees inside the facility. Half the hallways are pitch black.

"You were caught up in it," says Cpl. Bob Heffner of the sheriff's department to the rookie, who hasn't spent a minute in the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy yet but is getting kudos for how he's handled himself during the training session. "Don't beat yourself up about it. You saw what you saw. That's stress. You haven't been exposed to this. That's why we do this."

According to Officer Joe Cox, a sniper with the department's SWAT Team, the department uses a "diamond" formation to combat someone shooting inside a school or similar building, something the department has implemented in the last four or five years. Every officer must know it.

The formation is designed to allow officers to get to a shooter more quickly, and was one of several new techniques law enforcement agencies across the nation adopted after the Columbine High School disaster in Colorado nearly a decade ago. Then, police set up a perimeter around the school and did not go in until much of the shooting was done.

"They figured out it wasn't a good idea to hold a perimeter and wait for the SWAT Team while kids are being killed inside," Cox said.

The formation the sheriff's department uses requires at least four officers and a maximum of eight. According to Cox it will always be the job of the first four officers at a scene to go in and stop the shooting. The "point" officer will head up the group with two "utility" officers stationed behind him to each side. Another officer will be in the rear, which completes the diamond, looking over his shoulder as the group moves toward the gunshots.

The group can quickly shift positions, with the rear officer becoming the point, if they need to reverse their direction. All the while, the utility officers are checking doors they pass, looking for maps of the building posted on the wall they can use and making sure the group is safe from the side.

They're also trained to go against the flow. If 100 people come at them, they go forward to where the people are running from.

"You've got to be freethinkers," Heffner tells the group. "Think on your feet."

At one point during the training, Heffner comes running at the group like a scared victim. The group quickly subdues him and goes on its way to find the shooter, just as it's supposed to do.

"You step over them," said Cox of people the officers come across that may be hurt or scared. "You're not here to render aid or evacuate. You're here to stop the person doing the shooting."

And always present throughout the exercise is the constant stress, designed to get an officer's heart rate to accelerate even though he knows it's a drill, to make things as real as possible and to get the mistakes out during training so they can remember what to look for.

With similar shootings such as those in Finland to Virginia Tech, and even the armed man who holed up in the offices of The Miami Herald last year, the training is worthwhile. According to many in the department, it's only a matter of time before law enforcement officers here face the same situation.

Copyright 2007 The News-Sentinel

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