Police Training Turns GSU into Crime Scene
Drill: cops pursue gunman, good guys win
Spent cartridges litter the carpet. In a far corner of a second floor classroom at BU Academy, a heavy wooden desk has been shoved aside. A dozen cops, some BU police officers, some Boston police officers, study a white board showing the path of a lone gunman, sketched hastily by Boston Police Sergeant Gary Eblan.
“Let me ask you something,” says Eblan. “When you were following the shooter here, did you have your guns holstered or out? Because we [expletive deleted] want them out. Let me ask you something else: was it hard? Were you sweating? Could you see? Was your heart going boom, boom, boom?”
The cops, many still wearing protective vests, nod affirmatively. Yes, it was hard. Yes, the contact team who chased the “active shooter” through the George Sherman Union, across University Road, into BU Academy, and up the stairs to this classroom were sweating. In fact, they were sweating so ferociously that their Plexiglas facemasks were fogged up. And because the headgear obscured sound as much as sight, they couldn’t be sure exactly which direction the shots were coming from. So yes, with four students shot in the GSU and one cop down on the academy’s first floor, and with muffled hearing and limited vision, their hearts were going boom, boom, boom. And that was before one of the pursuers’ Glocks jammed, leaving him defenseless for dangerous seconds in the one place you never want to linger: a doorway.
“When that happens,” Eblan asks, “what do you do? You gotta make your gun hot again, as fast as you can. You gotta make it hot.”
The cops know the drill, and they know the priority: speed is everything. While just a few years ago, police response to an “active shooter” involved negotiation, these days it calls for taking him down. Fast.
And so the two cops who chased the shooter to this second floor classroom charged the gunman, who tried to find cover behind a desk. Shots were fired, the shooter fell, and they were on him, cuffing him and searching for hidden weapons. And then, as suddenly as it started, it was over, and their hearts were still going boom, boom, boom.
“We do drills like this to keep our skills sharp,” says Scott Paré, deputy director of public safety and BU Police Department deputy chief. “We did one last fall on the Medical Campus. We do it so the police from different departments know how to communicate with each other. This active shooter is the kind of thing that is an ongoing threat.”
The exercise, strategically scheduled early in the morning on the first Saturday of spring break, called for a gunman to fire on a group of students (played by actual students) in the George Sherman Union, which was closed to the public for three hours. And while the bullets are not real (the police fire bullet-sized paint-filled cartridges called simunition, and all participants wear protective vests and headgear), the chase is real, as is communication with police backup and EMTs.
Stephen Morash, BU’s director of emergency response planning, says the active shooter exercise is one of several designed to help police plan for catastrophic events. “We’ve done exercises with pandemic influenza, chemical terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and helicopter crashes,” he says. “Last year we did a multicasualty exercise program based on a structural collapse at Commencement.”
Morash says active shooter drills have been a regular exercise for municipal police departments since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, and that colleges and universities started doing them after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. The exercise is one of many designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP).
In the classroom where the chase ended, Eblan, who leads the exercise at institutions all over Boston, reviews the rules and the lessons of the day: “Stay in formation. Don’t all talk at once on the radio. Rear guard is the rear guard—the only time the rear guard should look forward is never. Rapid clearing means rapid clearing—if you don’t know where the shooter is, locate him. If you’re the contact team, you will have to use force; always think, suspect plus one, these guys are cowards.”
And then there is the big lesson, the one that Eblan comes back to again and again: “You think it will be hard, but it will be harder than you think.”
In this case, the drill went very well, says Paré, adding that a perfect performance is not necessarily the goal of the exercise.
“I actually want the guys to make mistakes on these drills,” Paré says. “That’s how you learn. You make mistakes on the drills and you don’t make them in real situations.”
He says the drill showed improvement in communications and ease in working with officers from other departments.
What’s left to work on?
“Everything,” says Paré. “You always have to work on everything. The minute we stop working on things is the minute we get in trouble.”
Art Jahnke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments