LI cops change tactics to speed response in mass shootings, enlist civilian help

Originally published: June 8, 2014 5:43 PM
Updated: June 8, 2014 6:48 PM

ESU Police Officer and lead instructor Bill Judge briefs a class of Suffolk County police officers in a classroom at the Police Academy in Brentwood on May 1, 2014. (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

Long Island police departments have changed their tactics to respond faster to mass shootings, and civilians who work at potential targets such as schools and shopping malls are being taught how to help.

The new approach to "active-shooter" incidents -- adopted by Suffolk and Nassau police, and echoed by law enforcement across the nation -- provides responding officers with specialized training, better intelligence information and more tactical support.

Instead of waiting for heavily armed SWAT teams to arrive, officers are being trained to run toward gunfire to neutralize the threat quickly and save lives.

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Suffolk police, for example, had been instructed to enter such volatile situations in "diamond formation" -- four officers forming the points of a diamond, offering 360-degree visual coverage. The rapid-deployment model, adopted three years ago, has them advancing in pairs, shaving precious seconds off the response time.

"Three minutes to wait to get four officers together is too long," said Stuart Cameron, Suffolk's assistant chief of patrol.

Although Cameron acknowledged that the paired approach "makes officers more vulnerable," he added: "We're risking that for a faster response."

Nassau officers are also being trained to enter volatile situations in smaller groups -- as few as one or two at a time, officials said.

The changes are being driven by a proliferation of mass shootings in recent years that have left scores of innocent people dead, including those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the Washington Navy Yard and Fort Hood, Texas.

A rampage last month near the University of California, Santa Barbara, ended with seven people dead, including the gunman. On Thursday, a gunman opened fire at a small Seattle university, killing a 19-year-old student and wounding two others.

There was an average of five mass shootings a year in the United States between 2000 and 2008, when the attacks began to spike, according to a Texas State University study. Last year, there were 15.

In most cases, rapid response is crucial. A typical shooting spree lasts about 12 minutes, according to the FBI. More than a third are over in a few minutes.

In Suffolk, officers are drilled in active-shooter training about four times a year and are getting greater access to vital information about potential targets, such as building layouts. Nassau's evolving training program, started in 2010, emphasizes early detection, aided by panic alarms and patched-in surveillance video as attacks are happening.

In both counties, training in the past few years has involved working with civilians at schools, malls, airports and other potential targets, and training drills are repeated each year. The departments also rely heavily on a brigade of advanced life-support technicians and paramedics who could treat the injured before the shooting stops.

"We need to push people in right away, whether they're individual or paired," said former Army Master Sgt. Scott Hyderkhan, who in 2013 published "The Active Shooter Response," a training manual for police.

Learning active-shooter protocols is crucial for every officer, said Hyderkhan, of Washington state.

They need to be routinely drilled on how to clear their gun if it jams, which hand signals to use, and how to enter a hallway or clear a room where a gunman may be lurking, he said.

But even with strides made by police across the country, civilian preparedness is key, the Texas study found.

"The five-highest casualty events since 2000 happened despite police arriving on scene in about three minutes," the study said. "Civilians need to be trained about what to do if one of these attacks occurs."

A research center at Louisiana State University has been training police on active-shooter response since 2009. Associate director Jason Krause said eight Long Island police departments, including Suffolk, have participated in the federally funded program, which preaches the paired-officers tactic.

Krause said it's important to realize that a mass shooting can occur anywhere.

"The threat is equal, no matter where you're at in the United States," he said.

Tactical medical squad

After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, Scott Coyne, chief surgeon and medical director for Suffolk police, saw the need for a tactical medical squad that could enter shooting scenes to save lives.

In 2008, Coyne launched the Medical Crisis Action Team, a group of officers certified in advanced life support.

Since then, the full 24-officer team has been deployed only a handful of times, one of them for a 30-car pileup on the Long Island Expressway in December 2012. But individually, Coyne said MedCAT officers use their training almost every day as they respond to lesser emergencies.

The team boasts a special ambulance equipped with a gun safe, evidence locker and special communications gear, allowing it to double as a mobile command post. State and federal funds were used to purchase the $180,000 vehicle.

Coyne said it's crucial for all officers to be well-versed in emergency medical care.

In a mass shooting, "EMTs are not coming in until the building is safe -- but people will be dead by then," he said.

"It falls on the police officers to engage the threat and deal with the injured."

In Nassau, the police department's ambulance bureau is made up of civilian paramedics, who don body armor and ballistic helmets to enter a shooting spree "hot zone," said Steven Skrynecki, chief of department.

For law enforcement nationwide, the attack on Columbine spurred a collective review of tactics. While the first officers at the scene waited outside the suburban Denver high school for SWAT teams to arrive, a teacher bled to death in a classroom.

Because the most frequent cause of preventable death in a mass shooting is blood loss, Suffolk officers who aren't part of MedCAT are being trained in what Coyne calls "care under fire."

Over the past two years, officers have been trained and equipped with tourniquets, chest seals and quick-clot bandages to stanch the flow of blood before victims can be rushed to a hospital.

"They're learning to balance handling the threat while caring for the injured," Coyne said.

Officers trained in chaos

At a recent training session at the Suffolk Police Academy in Brentwood, officers paired up and practiced moving down a hallway.

Fake guns drawn, they moved with synchronized steps toward a classroom where the "shooter" was hiding. They practiced stacking up and slipping through the doorway -- one of the most vulnerable positions an officer can be in.

In a stairwell, instructors barked at them to stick side-by-side as they made their way up the steps. One officer took the outside, keeping his eyes and pistol trained on the landing, while the inside officer kept her gun pointed up the stairs.

"Look at this corner! You're married to this corner!" instructor Frank Faivre shouted.

Officers are also drilled in chaotic active-shooter scenarios in malls and schools -- complete with a "bad guy," and others posing as victims and screaming students or shoppers.

Cameron said long guns are more prevalent in Suffolk precincts now -- a response to shooters in recent attacks elsewhere outfitted with body armor and high-powered assault rifles, and packing hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

In squad cars, officers have access to digital layouts of local school buildings to speed response, Cameron said.

Suffolk in August unveiled a dedicated hotline for schools that bypasses dispatchers and goes directly to the 911 center supervisor. More than 150 school buildings have been equipped, Cameron said. The department hopes soon to also have access to each school's closed-circuit TV system.

Similarly, Nassau police are working with school districts, businesses and malls to gain emergency access to surveillance systems in the event of an attack. Fifteen districts and the Roosevelt Field mall have signed on so far, Skrynecki said.

New technology is also aiding Nassau's planned active-shooter response. County Executive Edward Mangano last October announced a $3.2 million plan to distribute thousands of wireless panic alarms to public schools, with most of the costs covered by state and federal grants. The alarms act as a two-way communication device between police and the caller, and also provide the caller's location.

Skrynecki said every new mass shooting is scrutinized in hopes of further updating local training.

"It's a continual learning process," he said.

Civilians' vital lessons

There hasn't been a true active-shooter incident on Long Island since the 1993 Long Island Rail Road massacre, which left six dead and 19 wounded, but police are preparing the public for the possibility.

In Nassau, the department is working with managers and employees at public venues at higher risk of an attack, helping revise their emergency plans.

Both departments are holding training seminars at universities, hospitals and other public places. Suffolk also coordinates with volunteer ambulance companies.

At Long Island MacArthur Airport in late April, a hush fell over a crowd of security officers, Transportation Security Administration agents and airline employees as they listened to Cameron tell them how to survive if someone suddenly started shooting.

They were told to leave at once and to call 911 once safely outside. If escape wasn't possible, the advice was to find a hiding spot that offers protection and stay quiet.

Debra Profeta, a PenAir manager at the airport, said she learned how to recognize and react to red flags.

"There's a time to let someone know that this guy looks like he's really nervous, or he's wearing a winter coat in July," she said. "Never think that it could never happen here."