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Answering the challenge of active shooter situations

In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, PoliceOne Members candidly share their own unique personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is fromPoliceOne Member Gregg Wooten, a Federal Police Officer with the Department of the Air Force Civilian Police at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. PoliceOne First Person is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other PoliceOne Members, send us an e-mail with your story.

By Gregg Wooten
Federal Police Officer, Dept. of the Air Force Civilian Police
Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota

The horrific episode of violence in Newtown, unbridled, senseless in every context of the word, has left an immeasurable and indelible pain in the hearts of everyone who learned of the crime. The young lives, not even having the chance to begin in earnest, of 20 angelic children (as well as six hero adults little more than twice the age of the children) were selfishly, monstrously, and savagely taken by a deranged individual named Adam Lanza. 

Of all the questions this unthinkable act of horror has raised, perhaps the most pressing would be…Why? Why did this happen? Why here? Why did no one see this coming if there were in fact warning signs? Why did the murderer’s mother, the first victim, not remove or at the very least properly secure the weapons at her home if sufficient cause to do so was present? 

These are but just the very tip of the “why iceberg,” many of which may never be known, many will be closely guarded secrets to prevent copy-cat type events and many more may be answered with speculation, educated guesses and emotional conjecture. The agency tasked with learning the factual and inferred “why” answers was the task force headed by the Connecticut State Police. 

The Pain of Many
My heart goes out to each and every officer and support person touched by this heinous crime. Their task will be rife with complexities, interferences and emotions. Nobody but first responders can truly feel what they are feeling. The loss of each child is an unimaginable pain for the parents of course, but the loss of each and every victim is a personal loss, however unavoidable in reality to each and every officer. Their pain is magnified by the sights and sounds they witnessed and by the feelings of helplessness they are enduring. 

And yet, they persevere. They press on and do what needs to be done, no matter the torment that accompanies that task, there push through. There is no better definition of hero. 

The question of how to stop these type of crimes is resounding repeatedly over the airwaves and the knee-jerk reaction — as expected — is to blame the guns and gun owners. I can assure you that as a police officer, no one would be happier to know that there are no guns in the world to pose a threat to me, my family, and the community at large. 

Guns are merely tools. No different than hammers, butcher knives, or box cutters (all of which are capable of killing humans). So are cars, cigarettes, alcohol, and airplanes. The weapons of choice used by criminals and crazies are inconsequential compared to the why and what causes. 

The Efforts of Many
Active shooter situations are without a doubt a wholly law enforcement task, monumental as it is. This is an unavoidable fact of life here and the worldwide. The prevention of active shooter situations is, on the other hand, is a societorial responsibility. As a whole, parents to police and everyone in between has the burden of watching for the tell-tale signs of possible hostile intentions or mental destabilization. 

We arm our officers and train them to respond to these events because we are the best qualified, because we, by and large, are the ones charged with “serving and protecting.” I do not complain about this, only point it out to illustrate the point that the root cause of active shooter situations (and with many other serious crimes) is beyond the reach of law enforcement. 

It transcends crime-prevention efforts, community oriented policing campaigns and even the fading but still in my opinion the highly valuable D.A.R.E. program. This phenomenon has become much more commonplace in today’s society worldwide and is not solely an American societal flaw. 

However, make no mistake that each and every active shooter call will be answered by any police officer from any police department worldwide with unparalleled urgency. Beyond the charter of law enforcement to prevent these incidents in the vast majority of cases or not, the police will continue to react and educate whenever and wherever the need exists. 

Who’s responsibility is it to act and prevent these events whenever possible? The parents who are routinely facing a rebellious child? Teachers who notice “problem” individuals in the classroom? The psychologists who are treating children, young adults and seniors with mental afflictions of varying degrees? How about the peers of the social outcasts, the bullies, the introverts and the violently outspoken classmates, acquaintances or co-workers? The social media companies? Should there be legislation requiring some sort of mandating reporting for individuals who post disturbing things that may be a hint of similar plans? 

Where to start, how to start? How would it be even possible to coordinate these efforts to create a viable response and intervention plan that will be effective? To pick on just one of the above avenues, the moment a post is made concerning even the most remote threat to the President of the United States  alarm bells ring (as it should very well be I may add). 

Yet, how many sick individuals have made threats against schools, work centers, and the like and have gone virtually ignored unless actually reported by a reader? I find that to be unacceptable to say the least. 

While I served this country through active military service for 20 years and continue to serve the public trust through police work, I do support and defend an individual’s right to free speech, regardless of whether or not I agree. I also respect the fact that this right is not with responsibility. One is not free to say anything that would cause mass panic or be construed as a direct threat without consequence. Freedom is in fact a double edged sword, what one expects, one should be prepared to yield to others as well. 

President Obama has repeatedly used the word “change” in political speeches, election and re-election campaigns, and in many more venues. Although I disagree with many of his politics and views, I stand firmly alongside him on this matter…something needs to change. 

It’s not gun control that needs to change, it’s “people control” I mean. Not some uber-police state where all personal freedom is vanquished, but societal change from the inside. People policing people. People helping people. No one person can reasonably effect change as a whole in regards to active shooters of course, but as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep, so goes the journey of change for this crime. 

It will take an immense effort by many facets of communities and the continued efforts of everyone to actually make any kind of difference and there is no chance that this or any other serious or petty for that matter crime will be completely eradicated, but how many prevented incidents are worth effort? Exactly.

Imagine, just as a single type of effort, The United States Mint was to produce a new series of currency with the portraits of Victims of Violence on pennies and dollar bills alongside Presidents Lincoln and Washington. N

Not as tributes (although a good idea) and not as collector items, but instead, as hundreds of thousands of reminders of the curse of crime.

The impact on America would be very nearly instantaneous, but I fear in some bizarre turn of events, would be seen as a grisly and morbid atrocity rather than the somber reminder they would be intended for. Truly a sad state of affairs that would be. 

That is but one example of what needs to happen, a wakeup call if you will or the pinnacle of tolerance being surpassed to a degree where Americans will no longer accept active shooters as an unstoppable threat, rather, a blemish that can be attended to, albeit not eradicated but minimized to a more negligible statistic. 

Until that day comes, the challenge of active shooters to law enforcement will remain a constant plague and obstacle that we can attack directly through response, lessons learned through aftermath investigations, and cross-talks with other departments and agencies. We can perform additional public information services and increase the level of knowledge of high risk target populations as best as we can. 

Then again, you can only lead a horse to water…

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