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Mass shootings are a law enforcement nightmare, but officials are ready

POSTED: April 18, 2009 12:17 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Hall County Sheriff's Sgt. Bob Watterson demonstrates one of the shields deputies use in shooting situations.

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There’s only so much you can prepare for a rampage.

A rash of mass shootings in Alabama, North Carolina and New York in the last two months has brought the media spotlight back on spree killings committed by lone gunmen.

It’s the kind of attention such individuals crave, and may have contributed to a "copycat" phenomenon, one expert said.

"They know they will get maximum media attention and the story of their life and whatever their particular problems are will be published," said Chris McGoey, a security consultant who has studied mass shootings. "They’re very narcissistic. They want to go out in flames and they want to take out as many people with them as they can."

For local authorities, the scenario of a heavily-armed suicidal berserker carrying out a carefully-planned rampage is daunting. But they still plan and prepare for it.

"Anytime someone has a plan and is willing to give up their life, it’s very difficult to stop prior to that," said Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland. "The perpetrator in these events makes all the decisions. We’re reacting to whatever action they are taking."

Hall County’s deputies train each year inside area high schools in what is called an "active shooter drill," during which they try to engage and neutralize a mock gunman firing rubber pellets from a pistol.

Training officers study post-incident reports from shooting incidents across the country to incorporate into the drills.

"Out of every incident, there’s always something we can learn and do better," Strickland said.

In many cases, the carnage has already taken place before police arrive on the scene. But in some instances, such as a March 29
nursing home shooting in Carthage, N.C., police are able to subdue the shooter and prevent more lives from being taken.

Strickland said the procedure for any active shooter situation calls for engaging the gunman as soon as two officers arrive on the scene. Time is too critical to wait on a SWAT team, a contingent of which can be mobilized in 15 to 45 minutes.

To that end, the agency has begun supplying more of its road units with special equipment, some of which authorities won’t reveal for tactical reasons. The department is equipping each shift with bulletproof shields that can be used to protect an officers’ head during an armed confrontation or exchange of gunfire.

"We plan for the worst and hope for the best," Strickland said.

A number of public spaces and private workplaces have strengthened security in response to mass shootings, but not every location can have swipe-card locks or security guards.

"That’s the problem," he said. "You can go and harden a location, but these shooters always seem to be popping up somewhere else."

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of responding to an active shooting scene is the unstable minds police often are dealing with, McGoey said.

"Law enforcement is making presumptions and using tactics based on logic, and these people are living some sort of fantasy, so it makes it very very tough," he said. "I don’t envy them."

"You can plan as much as you want, but you can’t always plan what the shooter’s going to be doing," McGoey said.


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