Training for incidents like Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut is quickly becoming a priority in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, with the sheriff-elect promising to revitalize such training, something that has been more difficult to provide deputies in recent years given budget cuts.
“We have to see where (the) overtime budget is, but I assure we’re going to do some type of training, in conjunction with school resource officers,” Sheriff-elect Gerald Couch said Monday, emphasizing how important the issue is to him.
The office currently provides on-site active-shooter response training at various locations including schools, hospitals and churches, something implemented several years ago, said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, spokesman for the office. There is also periodic refresher training, he added.
“The tragedy in Newtown, Conn., will undoubtedly factor into the way law enforcement agencies across the nation move forward with their training,” Wilbanks said. “Failing to learn from such a horrific event and adapting at least some aspects of our thinking would only serve to worsen the tragedy.”
The agency cannot divulge specifics on the training for security reasons, but the program is conducted by office training staff and is aimed at preparing deputies for a situation in which one or more gunmen are “attempting to inflict mass casualties in a densely occupied area,” he said.
The tactical unit also has participated in training by outside law enforcement agencies, including multiagency training scenarios, he said.
The office last held an active shooter training scenario in the early part of this year at a local medical facility as part of a multiagency exercise, Wilbanks said.
Some 20-25 percent of deputies have not received the training, though, he said. New deputies are trained as the opportunities come up on the training calendar. The 2013 calendar is being finalized.
“Our goal is to have all sworn deputies trained in the program so that no matter what division they are assigned to, they are prepared to respond to such an incident,” he said. “With personnel turnover and a reduced training budget, this has been a real challenge in the last few years.”
Wilbanks said that before budget cutbacks, office policy required deputies to undergo at least 40 hours of training per year — twice the minimum that the state requires for peace officers. Now the department requires only the state minimum.
“When departmental budgets are slashed, among the first things to get cut is funding for overtime and training,” he said.
“Active shooter training is usually off-site, scenario-based incidents that are very time-consuming and almost impossible to conduct while deputies are on duty, requiring them to train on their days off,” he added. “Without an overtime budget to finance these training sessions, it’s very difficult to get everyone through.”
Friday’s shooting, though, is already getting the ball rolling on increased security and training.
“We’ve increased patrol presence in schools, we’re going back over safety plans that we have, looking at skills that we do not have,” Couch said. “School resource officers are going to look at their safety and security plans and try to enhance those as they move forward.”
The office is in direct contact with schools to stay plugged in to safety measures.
“Our school-based services unit, which includes our school resource officers in the middle schools and high schools and our ADVANCE deputies in the elementary schools, works very closely with the school system and each individual school administration to develop and implement an appropriate crisis plan to deal with a variety of emergencies,” including violence, Wilbanks said.
Staying one step ahead is a constant process for law enforcement.
“Our training staff is constantly evaluating and assessing recent incidents and criminal trends in order to keep our personnel up to date on current threats,” he said. “By its very nature, much of law enforcement work is reactionary, so one of the great challenges for our trainers is trying to anticipate the next threat and ensuring that our officers are adequately prepared to face it.”