Police response has evolved as school shootings persist

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By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

It has been almost 19 years since perhaps the most infamous school shooting at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were killed.

That tragedy raised the nation’s awareness of the vulnerability of students massed together in a school. It changed how schools approached student safety, and active-shooter lockdowns are now mandated by law in Kentucky schools.

But schools are not the only agencies that have changed their approach to active shooter situations. Over the past two decades, the response by police has evolved.

“Time can be lives,” said Nelson County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Voils, the department’s rapid deployment instructor.

Voils was certified as an instructor a couple of years ago, and explained that police take a completely different approach to such situations than 20 years ago.

At Columbine High School, he said, 13 minutes went by between when police arrived on the scene and when they entered the building. That’s because back then, the responding officers’ first priority was to secure the scene and wait for back-up, usually a SWAT team specially trained for such operations.

The training shifted to a quad-based approach, where officers were trained to enter a situation once four officers were on the scene, but over the intervening years they have learned that even that can take too much time, especially in rural areas where there might not even be four officers in close proximity.

“If something were to happen in Bloomfield, and I was in Bloomfield, my next officer might be in New Haven,” Voils said. “Even if the city is responding, they still have a 10-minute response time running lights and siren to get to that school.”

“They started changing the mindset of training the individual officer,” he said. “If you get there, there’s active gunfire, you go. That’s the focus we’ve tried to push, too.”

Two students were killed and 14 others wounded by gunfire Tuesday when a student opened fire at Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky. While many details as to the motivation and the response remain unknown, what has been publicly acknowledged is that police arrived at the school within nine minutes of the first 911 call. A recording of the dispatch traffic released in the internet implies that officers who arrived on the scene immediately entered the building.

It also demonstrates some of the unique difficulties to such a situation, including communication between multiple agencies responding.

Each agency in Nelson County has its plan for responding to an active shooter situation. The Sheriff’s Office has on file each school’s plan. But Voils said there is more preparation that could be done to be fully prepared for such an incident locally.

“One of the biggest issues is communication,” Voils said.

Voils said since he came to the Sheriff’s Office in 2005, the county has not held a large-scale practice between all agencies that might be involved in such a situation. He said he thinks such an exercise could help prepare for such a tragedy.

“People don’t rise to an occasion, usually,” he said. “They fall back to their training.”

Training together, and just better understanding what each agency’s plan is, would better prepare a local response, he said. And, he pointed out, mass shooting events happen in all types of communities. They can happen anywhere.

There have been hundreds of school shootings over the past two decades. Since 2013, there have been 283 school shootings in America, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, a non-profit that advocates for gun safety laws. That organization’s numbers include incidents where a gun was fired but no one was injured.

Voils also pointed out that schools are not the only scenes of mass shootings. According to the crowd-sourced mass shooting tracker at shootingtracker.com, there have been 15 shootings since Jan. 1 with 11 people killed and 67 wounded.

Marshall County was the 10th school shooting incident since Jan. 1, according to Everytown.

Voils said that too often, people in more rural areas think of active shooting situations happening in larger cities, but that is not the case. He said people can’t get stuck thinking it can’t happen here.

“In reality, they’re happening in small towns, same as everywhere.”