School shooting is fake. Can it prepare an officer for a real officer?
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Policemen walked through remarkably realistic school hallways, ears trained for fake gun shots. Discarding a child-sized dummy, they proceeded into the classroom where an actor was shouting.
“The shot was fired,” the instructor urged officers to see what bullets would be like in real life. “What do we need to do?”
Officers – many of whom have never fired their weapons at another person, let alone a shot – must answer that question correctly. Whether a dozen arrived, or just one, training dictates that they must engage, even if they risk death. The May school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., where 19 children and two adults died as police officers hesitated, demonstrates the cost of failure.
The State Preparedness Training Center in Oriscany, NY, where fears of the future are simulated, studied, and perhaps prevented, is part of a vast infrastructure for tragedy. Since 2017, millions have been spent by the federal government on mass shooter training, and states have spent even more.
And while some efforts are aimed at prevention—a new domestic terror unit inside the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services combines information from social services, schools, and police departments to identify threats—most only once. Happens after the attack has started.
So across the country, schools teach kids to run and hide and fight, and hospitals prepare to be admitted to full classes. But as children return to school this month, memories of past bloody years make it clear that such efforts alone cannot stem the tide of violence.
The 1,100-acre facility, which has cost more than $50 million, simulates a terrifying set of scenarios, from terrorist attacks to flash floods. Its major pride is the cityscape, an airplane hangar converted into a small town with a bar, a school and a shopping mall – all built to be bombed and shot down. There are framed photographs on the walls, coffee cups on the cafe table and, on the teacher’s desk, a VHS copy of the Shaquille O’Neill throwback “Kazam.”
“We’ve put a lot of focus on making this as realistic as possible,” said Jackie Bray, commissioner of the Homeland Security and Emergency Services Division, which oversees training for state police officers and emergency workers.
“There’s a reason we train, and one reason we train consistently, is that we’re asking people to do things that are really against an instinct,” Ms Bray said.
Whether such efforts will be enough is difficult to say.
There are no national standards for police training, making it different from city to city and state to state. Most of the force is small and rural, lacking the resources or organizational support of urban departments. And while the state covers the training, and even provides some accommodations for New York officers, departments lacking some resources may still struggle to take advantage.
Even the best preparation is no guarantee of success: A New York Times analysis of 433 actual and mass shooting attempts from 2001 to 2021 showed that nearly 60 percent were finished before police arrived. . Overall, statistics show that police subdued gunmen in less than a third of all attacks.
“You look at these stories, and they’re terrifying, and hope they’re never something you have to deal with,” Sargent said. Chris Callahan of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, who took an active-shooter course in June. “You hope that if it ever happens – if I’m ever called upon – that I’ll be able to make it back in this training.”
Controversy is hardly new. In a 1947 report, military historian SLA Marshall noted that less than 25 percent of combat soldiers actually found the courage to fire their weapons during World War II. While his methodology has been shown to be less than scientific, his findings persist as a symbol of the human inclination to hesitate in the face of danger.
Mass shootings pose a similar conundrum. When a shooter barricaded the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, police waited nearly three hours while the victims were bleeding. Two years later, when a teenage gunman attacked students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people, an armed officer retreated to safety. In May, the nation saw hundreds of officers stand at Rob Elementary School in Uvalde for nearly an hour.
When a person faces a threat, the eyes dilate and the heart rate increases, preparing the body to leap into action. The brain’s stimulus response is increased, but the prefrontal cortex is restricted, compromising decision-making and hand-eye coordination.
Specialized military and SWAT teams often seek to recruit people who are naturally calm under pressure. But rank-and-file officers can do little in terms of biology, Dr. Arne Nieuwenhuis, who studies human performance at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Their ability to consciously control their reaction under high stress is very limited,” he explained.
For those who come to the State Preparedness Training Center, learning how their bodies respond to stress is just one of many lessons learned in courses lasting two to five days.
Conceived by Governor George E. Pataky in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the center opened in 2006 to train police, firefighters and emergency doctors together. Enrollment never reached the 25,000 the governor had hoped for: its peak, in 2019, was half that. The center was constructed with a combination of state and federal funding and provides free training to all New York law enforcement officers.
In active-shooter training, groups of 24 navigate hallways and clear rooms, among other exercises. They practice responding to domestic incidents and reports of gunfire in shopping centers and schools. After feedback from the trainers, they run the exercises again.
In one scenario, officers must respond to shots at the mall. They fall into terrible silence. Alerted for clues, they scour each store – cafe, army-navy store – before finding and engaging the gunman hiding in a travel agent’s storefront.
The inevitability of such engagement began after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Police officers did what they were trained to do: secure the perimeter. Then he waited for the SWAT team. During this, about a dozen students died.
Mr Stallman, the center’s assistant director, has been instructing officers since those early days, and remembers “a lot of pushback”.
“It was extremely difficult to convince the patrol officers that they needed to go there,” he said, because officers had left those tasks to special teams for years.
“‘I don’t have a vest,'” he said as officers complained. “‘I don’t have the training they have, I don’t have the long guns they have. Now you’re telling me I need to go in and do my job?'”
Their concerns were not unfounded: A review of 84 active-shooter attacks by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University in San Marcos showed that a third of the officers who responded alone were shot.
“Some departments may not necessarily have changed their thinking; Some departments were a little unclear about whether that officer should wait for another additional officer, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. “In view of Uvalde, if there was any ambiguity earlier, then there is no further talk about the responsibility of the first responding officer.”
Mr Stallman said he hoped to help officers come to grips with the idea that they should put themselves in situations they can’t get away from.
“That’s difficult,” he said. “But if they don’t do that, people die.”
In the past, training programs were aimed at relieving officers of their own stress – the idea being that a person could build up immunity to the fight-or-flight response with no exposure. But relatively little attention has been paid to assessing the impact of training on police work in real life.
“We don’t collect data on police shootings, let alone analyze whether the officer played a significant role in success or failure,” said Stephen James, a Washington State University researcher who studies stress and police policy.
Dr. James instead favors skill training that involves a manageable amount of stress to build confidence. Realistic programs like Oriskany can be helpful, he said, if they follow an evidence-based curriculum.
“What we need to do is build up the resource side of the equation, rather than trying to get people used to the stress side of the equation,” he explained.
New Zealand researcher Dr. Nieuwenhuis has begun to see something similar. In a 2010 simulation measuring the marksmanship of police officers facing an attacker, who occasionally shot back, they found that officers were able to improve their performance in high anxiety situations. Preliminary results suggest that the effects may be replicated in more severe situations, he says, but only if officers receive the right training.
Then there is the important question of whether a clinical result can be replicated when it matters.
Katherine Schweit, the former head of the FBI’s active-shooter program, believes all training is valuable. But still it is no guarantee.
“We all want a simple answer,” said Ms Sweatt. “It is an impossible goal. And the reason it is an impossible goal is because we are not machines. We are humans.”
Outside the classroom at the Oriskany Center, officers swung into action. Using the door frame as cover, he fired his bright blue counterfeit weapons into the room, knocking the gunman down four clean pops.
Then they heard screams in the next room – a hostage, at gunpoint by a second shooter. They only stayed a moment before a cloud of phantom bullets fired at the gunman, ending the standoff in 25 seconds.
Soon a trainer, EJ Weeks, was giving feedback, offering praise for their communication and formation. Could they have gone faster?
“We have to move straight to that danger, reduce the danger,” Mr. Weeks reminded him. “Stop killing so what can we do?”
“Stop dying,” the officers clapped.
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.