Sammamish Review August 16, 2006

Program trains officers to respond to shooters "ASAP" By Tyler Roush

Empty shell casings littered the concrete walkway. The spent rounds glinted in the sun, casting the look of a battlefield onto the school's entryway, sprawled out before lofty doors. But the rear entrance to Eastlake High School hadn't exploded into a combat zone on a sweltering July day, it was a training ground.

The King County Sheriff's Office conducted two separate Active Shooter and Patrol (ASAP) training sessions on Eastlake's campus last month. A total of 60 student volunteers posed as victims and gunmen while officers staged hostage scenarios. Officers substituted paint rounds for their live ammunition during the sessions. Remnants of the plastic capsules had begun to soften into the pavement in the midday heat. A few of the volunteers were flecked with paint the color of green Jell-O, but were no worse for wear.

"It's fun," said Nick Stanfield, 13. "Once you've been hit with the bullets, you don't really feel them." The program's objective is to train local deputies to properly and promptly respond to situations involving a shooter who is actively targeting victims, including, but not limited to, incidents in schools. That goal reflects a shift in police philosophy following the April 1999 shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"Before Columbine, this was always a SWAT operation," said Officer Nick Minzghor, the lead instructor for the program. Minzghor, who works for the City of Kenmore, has SWAT experience - he spent six years working in one of the special police response units. But SWAT teams often assemble far from shooting incidents and may take as long as an hour to arrive at the scene, Minzghor said. That type of delay helped turn a dangerous situation at Columbine into a lethal one. "In 55 minutes they killed 15 kids and wounded 23," Minzghor said. "Police tactics have changed since Columbine."

Teams from Sammamish's police department attended both sessions last month. With two high schools already on the plateau and Eastside Catholic scheduled to open in 2008, the training is vital to department members. "We have a vested interest in making sure our officers are trained in active shooter because of all the schools in the city," Sgt. Jerrell Wills said. Aside from Officers Stan Chapin and Alana Hall, the school resource officers at Eastlake and Skyline high schools respectively, most officers are seeing the school layouts for the first time during the ASAP training. Skyline High hosted a session in 2004.

On Standby

The recent scenario training at Eastlake began shortly after 11:30 a.m., following a lunchtime break in the school's cafeteria. As lunch ended, Minzghor told each of the four teams-officers assigned to Sammamish, Woodinville, Kenmore and unincorporated King County-to take their beverages into the library and await their first assignment. "But there's a sign above the door that says, "No beverages in the library"," one officer appealed to a smattering of laughter.

The teams alternated working through each scenario, leaving plenty of downtime between engagements. Officers passed the time cracking jokes or discussing tactics. Their radios were switched off to avoid allowing scenario details to trickle down to the waiting officers. At least one message did make it through. "Team 1 said to check your magazines because apparently the rounds are kind of melting in the heat," one officer said to the others gathered in the library.

A cacophony of clicks and snaps followed the report. The sounds of magazines sliding out of firearms and popping back into place lent the room the air of a prelude to battle. With temperatures rising above 90 degrees and some officers outfitted in heavy body armor, paint rounds weren't the only things succumbing to the heat. "It is some kind of warm in here," said Wills, while the Sammamish team waited in the library. Another person in the room echoed the sentiment. "Would you care to take a vest?" asked Officer Tony Garza. The Sammamish officer sat low in his chair, the shoulders of his armored vest bunching up around his neck. His helmet rested on the table in front of him. "These things are pretty warm," said Deputy Scott Allen, also wearing one of the armored vests. "About 60 pounds of warm," Garza replied.

Shot Fired

After waiting about 30 minutes, the team of Sammamish officers - Allen, Chapin, Garza, Hall and Wills - took its first turn at about 12:15 p.m. Lacking a large deployment vehicle, the five had to crowd into a single police cruiser, with four officers loading into the cab and a fifth crouched in the vehicle's open trunk - a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. But there was no mistaking the gravity of the situation - a radio report from a 911 dispatcher indicated that shots had been fired on the Eastlake campus. Panicked students rushed out of the building's rear entrance as the Sammamish team - with Wills charging ahead on point - prepared to subdue the gunman. The team slipped around a corner and confronted the shooter in an outdoor walkway area; someone shouted, "Drop your weapon!" A number of pops followed in quick succession, sounding less menacing than the clatter of actual gunfire.

The scenario resolved with Hall putting handcuffs on the shooter, who was presumably killed by police fire. Hall fired three shots; Chapin shot once. "Anybody get hit?" Hall asked. A quick scan of their gear confirmed that none of the five officers had been wounded. Minzghor then debriefed the team, saying that the team moved through the scenario too quickly, and that Wills had advanced too far ahead of the group. He also suggested that a rifleman lead the column. "Take a couple of deep breaths and use the training you were taught," he said. "Not a perfect world, but the bad guy's dead." In its second scenario, the Sammamish team targeted a group of shooters who barricaded themselves inside a classroom along with multiple hostages. During the debriefing, Minzghor once again advised the officers to slow down. With training ongoing throughout the afternoon, Minzghor and fellow instructors Paula Davies, Erik Soderstrom and Joe Winters had little time to relax. For his part, Minzghor made sure to keep his trainees on their toes.

As one team ambled out to its patrol car, Minzghor directed the officers to pick up their pace. "I like to tell them to hustle because it gets their heart rate up," he said. He didn't need to prompt the Sammamish officers-by the start of the third scenario the team's reputation for speed had preceded it. "Oh, this is the running team, isn't it?" Minzghor said. "I better put my sneakers on."

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