Legally Speaking: Jeff Vercler

 

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When JEFF VERCLER joined the Champaign County Sheriff's Office as a road deputy 22 years ago, the words "active shooter" were not part of daily police jargon.

They are now, and Vercler, a sergeant, has become somewhat of an expert in training fellow patrol officers in the current response to mass shootings, which can happen anywhere a crowd is gathered.

Here's a sample of his interview with staff writer Mary Schenk:

How did the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., change police thinking about how to respond?

"Back then, and no fault to any police department, the tactics were: Surround, contain it, call SWAT and have them go in. That's what happened. Police didn't get in that building for almost two hours in that incident."

"After Columbine, police departments had to take a hard look at themselves. This isn't going to work. This takes too long. These incidents are over too quick. Agencies after Columbine said, 'This is going to be a patrol response. Whatever police officer is on duty — investigator, detective, patrol officer, whoever is closest — everybody and anybody is going to have to respond rapidly to that scene.' There's no more waiting. They immediately enter the building, immediately go after the bad guy."

How do you train for the unthinkable?

"The main training thing is studying what the history is. It's not like officers have all this experience in active shooters like they do in traffic stops. You have to learn from departments that have gone through it: Orlando, Florida; Littleton, Colorado; Dallas, Texas. 'What did you learn? If you had to do it again ... what would you do better? What worked? What didn't work?' We try to learn from that, we train on that and go out and do scenario training.

"(The officers who responded to the at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando recommended) to make the training as chaotic as possible, because you will respond how you've been trained. The crazier you can make training, hopefully, it will be harder than an actual event."

We hear a lot about ALICE these days in schools and workplaces. What is it?

"ALICE is an acronym. It stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate, not necessarily in that order. It was developed by a police officer and his wife, who was a high school principal. When active shooters became more common ... they talked about what are you guys going to do in the school until the police get there. It's going to take a certain amount of time to get patrol officers to any place this is going on. It's been taught to hundreds and hundreds of schools in all 50 states, and businesses.

"Alert everybody to what's going on. ... Have multiple redundancies, because we have found some schools where the principal or superintendent can call this. What if he's not there that day, what if he's out?

"Inform: If you have information, in a huge building, that an intruder is in the northwest part of the building, then people in the southeast can think about, 'Can I get out?'

"Lockdowns do work to an extent. They buy time. If you have a lock, definitely lock it. It's a delay. Remember, the good guys are coming. Call 911. Don't assume someone else will do it. We will be coming as fast and as hard as we can.

"Evacuate. Consider getting out of the building. (Most mass shootings involve only one shooter, and) if they're inside, they're not going to be outside at the same time. A moving target is harder to hit. If you have to break glass, break glass. Go out a window. Break it in a corner; it's much easier to break in a corner.

"Counter. If given no choice, if someone breaches your door and is armed, attack the shooter with whatever and however you can. Just because he has a gun doesn't make him all powerful in a room full of people. Can you grab a weapon? Can you grab anything? I'm talking anything you can throw, project, a fire extinguisher, bug spray, a chair across the face.

"When you get swarmed by a bunch of people, there is little you can do. I can walk in a room and have a gun, I know it sounds strange, but I'm at a disadvantage. You cannot shoot people fast enough if they attack you.

"If you're going to go down, how do you want to go down? Go down fighting. If you just sit there in a fetal position and do nothing, you will become a victim unless the shooter chooses not to make you a victim that day.

"Don't be scared. Gather others."

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).