Cops practice for assignment they hope never comes
Published: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
The police officers silently moved through Glen Springs Elementary as they looked for the mock shooter. From a darkened classroom, they heard children scream.
“Help!” they yelled. “We're here, he's here!”
The officers entered the room to find the fake shooter holding a boy hostage. After a few seconds of confrontation, the officers shot the man using Simunition, a non-lethal training ammunition, and saved the boy from any injuries.
The scenario was part of the three-day training period this week for Gainesville Police Department school resource officers. While students are on Thanksgiving break, police trained with SWAT officers to hone their skills and practice dangerous scenarios inside area schools.
SWAT Officer Bob Gebhardt and Officer Scott Ferrel trained 15 officers in target identification, tactics, and pistol and rifle marksmanship. The officers, who work at 11 Gainesville elementary schools, also had to learn the layouts of all the schools in case a shooting happened at a school they do not regularly patrol, Gebhardt said.
“We don't want any surprises,” he said on Wednesday. “My kids are in these schools. If we're not prepared for a shooting, we're going to be questioning ourselves for the rest of our lives on what we did wrong.”
The officers also ran through various live scenarios in the elementary school, such as active shooters or a hostage situation.
“There's been a 60 percent increase in school violence in the 2012-2013 school year,” Gebhardt said. “Since the Columbine shooting, we've increased training overall, but since the Sandy Hook shooting we've also increased training for our elementary school officers.”
Last year in Connecticut, a man named Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first-grade children and six educators with a semi-automatic rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary school. In the hours before the shooting, Lanza had shot his mother in the forehead and after the massacre he killed himself with a handgun as police arrived at the school.
The report by prosecutors on the case was released this week. In it, investigators said Lanza had no clear motive for the shooting, but he was obsessed with the Columbine High School shooting and other mass murders. The report also said Lanza had written a book in the fifth grade that included tales of children being slaughtered and a son shooting his mother in the head.
On Wednesday, the smell of gunpowder filled the air as Officer Diamond Smith and his colleagues practiced their aim on the final day of training for school resource officers at the Santa Fe College Institute of Public Safety.
Smith, who is a school resource officer at A. Quinn Jones School, said the police department is pushing to give officers like him more of this type of training.
“The training has been excellent,” he said. “The cost of this type of training can range anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per person. We've had two great teachers who are … trained to shoot and who have been showing us how to become proficient in these skills.”
But for Smith, being a school resource officer is more than being an authority—he's also a counselor, father figure, coach, mentor and friend to the 90 kids he watches over at his school.
“You can't do this job unless you care,” he said. “I've bought clothes for kids who don't have the best clothes with my own money. As school resource officers we have to build relationships with these kids and let them see the human side of police so they can trust us.”
GPD spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said that each time the students are on break, police use the opportunity to make sure they are on top of their skills so that if the time comes they will be ready.
“The SWAT officers' experience and training are invaluable to our school resource officers,” he said. “At the end of the day, if kids get hurt, it comes back on us.”