Published 9:13 p.m. UTC May 21, 2018
While law enforcement officials throughout the country are increasingly sketching out strategies on how they’ll respond to active-shooter scenarios, a spate of recent school shootings — including last week’s incident at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school that left 10 dead and 13 injured — demonstrates that carrying out their plans has limits in the fog of chaos.
Law enforcement officials who are trained under ALERRT — the Texas State University designed program that the FBI considers the national standard for how officers should respond to active shooters — are urged that their first responsibility is to stop the perpetrator of the crime as quickly as possible.
But as last week’s tragedy in Texas shows, that’s easier said than done.
Police said it took about 30 minutes between when 911 emergency dispatchers received their first call about the incident and when the suspect, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, surrendered to authorities.
The school had taken part in active-shooter drills and armed police officers were assigned to roam the halls. Several of the students who were pinned in the classroom by the gunman acted on what they were taught, including searching for cover and barricading doors. Still, the casualty toll was immense.
Authorities in Texas have released scant details on the officers’ response.
It’s unknown precisely when police officers who descended on the school first had contact with the suspect during the incident and why the suspect emerged unscathed despite what Galveston County’s top administrator, Judge Mark Henry, described as “a lot of firepower and a lot of rounds exchanged” between cops and Pagourtzis.
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at LSU School of Public Health, said officers responding to such situations find themselves in a delicate situation in which they need to stop a killer who is surrounded by bystanders while also trying not to get shot by the gunman.
“The idea of shooting an innocent bystander is the nightmare situation for the officers in this scenario,” said Scharf, who has studied school shootings. “They can be going in without a clear target, and you are entering a situation where you could have a lot of kids in a room moving around and there is one kid that you’re looking for. It’s not the most surgical situation. These situations are so complicated to decode.”
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Witness accounts and recordings of the 911 emergency dispatch calls suggest that the incident stretched far longer than the average mass shooting incident, which FBI data show typically lasts five minutes or less.
It appears that the gunman had some sort of contact with an armed school resource officer soon after the incident began. Dispatch records show the officer was reported wounded about three minutes after authorities received the first call about the incident.
The gunman struck in the school’s art complex, a maze of four rooms, each connected via interior hallways, that could have made the situation more complicated for the responding officers. All of the injuries and deaths occurred within the art complex. It’s unclear how many students were in that part of the school when the shooting began.
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Deedra Van Ness, whose daughter Isabelle was in the art class but managed to survive by hiding in a supply closet, said her child called police twice before they arrived at the scene at least five to 10 minutes after the gunman started shooting at his classmates.
At one point, Isabelle could hear the gunman reload his weapon and exchange gunfire with police, according to an account Van Ness shared on Facebook.
“The suspect may not have been taken into custody for 30 minutes, but part of the stop the killing phase (that officers are taught through ALERRT) is to isolate, distract or neutralize,” said Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State, which has trained more than 130,000 officers.
“If, as an officer, I can push you into somewhere you’re not going to gain access to any other victims or your attention is on me so you’re worried about dealing with me as opposed to seeking out other victims, then I still managed to stop the killing at that point,” he said.
The Santa Fe tragedy, the deadliest public school shooting in Texas history, came three months after 14 students and three teachers were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla.
In the Parkland shooting, a school resource officer faced a barrage of criticism after video footage showed the officer lingered outside the school building when gunfire erupted. The officer, who was berated as a coward by President Trump, resigned from his post but is receiving an annual pension of more than $100,000.
In another incident last week in Dixon, Ill., a school resource officer was lauded as a hero for quickly reacting to an active shooter who police suspect was intent on attacking students during a graduation rehearsal.
The officer, Mark Dallas — who has served as the school’s resource officer for five years — confronted the armed man at Dixon High School near the school gym, where seniors were gathering for a graduation rehearsal, after he had opened fire in the school.
The teenage gunman ran out of the building after Dallas approached him, and the officer gave chase. During the chase, the suspect fired several rounds at Dallas. The officer then returned fire at the gunman, who suffered non-life threatening injuries, police said.
On Sunday, Dallas led the senior class into their graduation ceremony and received a standing ovation from the students and their grateful family and friends.
Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, questions how much impact training officers on responding to active-shooter scenarios can have. At the same time, she said policymakers should also consider whether the training and planning could have unintended negative consequences on students and the school setting.
“There is always going to be an element of luck involved and happenstance,” said Phelps, whose research focuses on the crime and punishment. “What kind of guns does the perpetrator have access to? Who is in the building that day and where are they located? What is the weather like that day? There is always going to be randomness.
“The question then becomes: Do these policies and training actually reduce risk?”
Follow Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad