Police train for possibility of shooter

Police train for possibility of shooter

It's hard to think of any good coming from the loss of life that occurred early Friday in a Colorado movie theater at the hands of a gunman. And it's almost impossible to say how the situation could have been prevented.

But local police who are forced to think about what-if scenarios every day say raising public awareness about personal safety can be a positive thing.

"It's fairly universal (in active shooter situations) that it comes down to the decision-making process of 'do I shelter in place or evacuate?'" said Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles.

Surles serves as his department's representative to the multi-jurisdictional METRO team.

A tactical unit of specially trained officers, the area METRO team is made up of officers from the Urbana, University of Illinois, Mahomet, Rantoul and Parkland College police departments and the Champaign County sheriff's office.

"That's what it comes down to," said Surles, who said area police do most of their training for responding to an active shooter in schools. "There are parts of a school where it would be absolutely appropriate to evacuate but other portions where it would be more appropriate to shelter in place."

"It's a judgment call and you have to make the decision based on sound judgment. You look at the facts given to you and figure out what's best for you and those around you. This is a dialogue that every school, workplace and gathering place should have internally. People should talk about these things generally in advance to prepare for a situation that might present itself," he said.

Surles said it doesn't need to be a deep analysis, just a what-if conversation over coffee with a co-worker: If they come in from this direction, what do I do?

Surles and co-worker Lt. Bob Fitzgerald give presentations at schools frequently about this very topic, which Surles suggested should be broader than a crazed person opening fire with a gun.

"What if there's a tornado, a fire, a medical emergency? If this, then that," he said.

Police officers train regularly for situations like that which occurred in the movie theater.

"It can happen anywhere where a large number of people gather," said Champaign police Sgt. Jim Clark, training coordinator for his department. "We've never trained specifically in a movie theater, but our response would be the same where ever."

Local departments have trained at Market Place Mall and in several area schools.

An incident outside at the mall in May 2011 resulted in Champaign police shooting the shooter and wounding him. Both the shooter and victim recovered.

In April 2011, several area law enforcement agencies took part in a major training session at the High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign, using role players as students and teachers.

Beyond specialized tactical team training for the active shooter, Clark and Champaign County sheriff's Lt. Greg Mills said, patrol officers on the street are continuously running potential confrontations through their minds.

"Mental preparation is encouraged every day to be prepared for the worst-case scenario," said Mills.

While it might take a SWAT team a half hour or more to activate and respond, patrol officers have to be on the scene within seconds or minutes.

"Whether that's going from a loud-music call to a violent domestic, you have to mentally prepare as you're driving there. That mental preparation is absolutely huge for any officer regardless of experience or rank," said Mills,

Clark said first responders in this area are thinking especially about bank robberies these days in the wake of a string of holdups since spring in Champaign.

"If there's a bank robbery here, how do I respond? What angle do I come in at, where do I park? Guys do that stuff consciously throughout the day," said Clark.

While the Colorado tragedy is definitely on the minds of workers at one of the area's largest movie theaters, it hasn't meant any major changes.

"We take security very seriously and already have (measures) in effect," said Melissa Garske, manager at the Goodrich Savoy 16 theaters.

Those include security cameras and extra personnel at popular showings such as "The Dark Knight Rises."

"We feel this appears to be a random act of violence that could occur anywhere, at a sporting event or any large gathering," she said.

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