Training for an atrocity : Law enforcement officers practice school shooting responses

Managing Editor

“Hostage” Cathy Barta holds her hands up as “shooter” Troy Eades points his pistol at law enforcement officers entering the room.

Photo by Deb Hill

Blam, blam, blam.

The sound of gunshots echoed down the hallway at Grass Range School.

Blam, blam, blam.

Then shouting: “One down, one down.”

“Show me your hands, show me your hands, show me your hands.”

Anyone walking into the school on Friday would have thought they’d stumbled into the midst of a nightmare scenario – that of a shooter taking hostages and the armed response of law enforcement.

But despite every appearance of the incident being real, there was no shooter. Instead the event was a carefully constructed law enforcement training drill, put on by the Fergus County Sheriff’s office.

According to Sheriff Troy Eades, active shooter training is usually offered every year.

“We try to hold this training in different schools around Central Montana so officers can become familiar with the layout of each,” Eades said.

Close to 30 people took part in Friday’s action, including those helping to put each scenario together and those being trained. Officers from both the Fergus County and Judith Basin County sheriff’s departments took part, along with staff from the Lewistown Police Department, Montana Department of Livestock, CMR National Wildlife Refuge and Fergus County Disaster and Emergency Services.

Several different scenarios developed by Texas State University, San Marcos, were used, each one involving a different situation –reports of an active shooter, a general disturbance at the school or a hostage situation.

Divided into teams of two or three, each group of officers got a “briefing” from Undersheriff Rick Vaughn. With protective gear in place – armored vests, gloves, helmets – and carrying simulated weapons, each team in sequence headed down the hallway, hoping to figure out where the danger lay. With many classrooms, as well as closets and restrooms, there were plenty of locations for a “bad guy” to hide.

Some of the scenarios involved shoot outs between suspects and law enforcement, while others involved talking a suspect into giving up. There were also surprises – the “hostage” that turned out to be one of the armed intruders, a bad guy hidden in an alcove or a suspect who had killed himself.

“Don’t get your head wrapped around the axel on who you think the suspect is,” Eades cautioned one group. “It may not be who you think. You need to utilize good tactics. Don’t drop your tactics. Tactics keep you alive.”

In one scene, a woman lay on the floor of the hallway, sobbing about having been shot, while an unknown male pounded on classroom doors, yelling for someone to come out. The male had a weapon held down at his side – was there a threat?

“The idea is to get you to think,” Eades said. “Who is the guy? What if it’s Farmer Brown trying to help catch the suspect? Would Farmer Brown be pounding on doors, yelling, with a weapon? Would Farmer Brown ignore law enforcement’s orders to comply? Is force warranted?”

Eades reminded each team of the criteria required for use of deadly force under Montana law: opportunity, ability and jeopardy.

In another scenario a team headed for sounds of shooting down the hallway, only to be jumped from behind by a second shooter hidden in a bathroom. Some of the teams were ready for it and took the shooter out; others did not fare so well.

“I’d rather we learn these lessons here than out on the street where it matters,” Eades said. “You’ve gotta trust the people you are with; they are trusting you to hold your area of responsibility.”

Almost every scenario involved the exchange of “gun” fire. Officers and suspects alike used realistic “sim” guns loaded with “simunitions” – brass cartridges armed with plastic paintball projectiles. Good guys shot with blue paint, bad guys used pink. According to Eades, each special gun cost $800 and the ammunition costs 50 cents a round.

“I pulled the trigger four times before I realized nothing was happening,” a deputy said after one shooting episode.

“If your weapon malfunctions, we’re not going to stop the drill,” Eades said. “It doesn’t happen in real life; it won’t happen here.”

One of the more difficult scenarios involved a room full of hostages and two armed intruders. As officers entered the room they were confronted with a hostage held at gunpoint, the gun to her temple. Some officers attempted to talk the suspect down, but others had difficulty trying to take down the bad guy.

“We may laugh about it here,” Eades said after the training, “but it’s serious. It’s important to recognize the difference between an active shooter and a barricaded suspect. A shooter situation can turn into a barricaded suspect really fast. We get jacked up but we still have to make sure we do the right thing.”

By the end of the day, almost everyone involved in the training was rolling up shirt sleeves or pant cuffs to examine bruises and abrasions left by the sim rounds. Yet despite minor wounds, there was a universal feeling of accomplishment.

“You never know when you are going to get called out on something like this,” said Monty Simenson, an officer with the Department of Livestock out of Columbus. “In my job I don’t usually face this type of situation, but I could be called in for backup if local law enforcement needs help. I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but this was really good training, a great reminder.”

“The whole thing is designed to get them to look at the big picture,” Eades said. “We need to do that before we’re in the hallway with the shooter. What is the scenario? When you get on the scene, what do you see? With our cop instincts, we’re driven to want to jump into the fight. These exercises ask them to think about what they should do.”




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