Adrenaline pumping, cops practice for a shooting
June 16, 2007
Guns drawn and slowly advancing, teams of police officers and sheriff’s deputies enter Park City High School, the building dark and strewn with construction debris.
Somewhere inside are their targets. The bad guys are armed. Gunfire has already cut down people inside. The police seem unsure at some points how many casualties there are. The number of suspects, perhaps armed students or terrorists, is difficult to determine.
It is just practice but the adrenaline pumps for Annette Ellis, a Park City Police Department sergeant, as her team moves toward the bowels of the school. They cover each other as they slowly advance, finding and eliminating the targets. The others cautiously stand down, lowering their weapons, which are outfitted with orange ribbons to signify they are not loaded.
It is early Thursday afternoon, less than a week after the school year ended, and 21 officers from five law-enforcement agencies are dispatched to the high school. They are on campus to train for the terrifying scenario of gunmen inside.
Littleton, Colo., and Blacksburg, Va., remain dark words for the lawmen and the Thursday practice, they say, makes them better prepared for shootings like those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University.
A school shooting can occur anywhere, they realize. And, with the deadly episodes at Trolley Square and the Triad Center, police officers understand off-campus rampages could occur in Utah, still seen by people as a safe place to live. Officers who work in the Park City area have long been aware the city, with its international flair and famous festivals like Sundance, could be targeted.
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"I would imagine people in other smaller towns, like Littleton, Colorado, thought ‘We will never have to do this,’" Ellis says.
Through the evening, the officers practice various situations and tactics. They learn how to communicate amid the chaos, they move in formation and they note which spots in the school could be troublesome if a shooter was inside.
The police plan to conduct similar scenarios at least annually. Another 25 officers were scheduled to be at the high school for similar exercises on Friday.
On Thursday, they bring their most powerful firepower. The Park City officers carry their newly minted shotguns and semi-automatic rifles as well as their standard-issue sidearms. Still, they discuss how to respond if a suspect wears body armor. They consider when a police sniper should be summoned.
Kris Hendricksen, a sergeant with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, assists with the training on Thursday, saying Park City is an attractive target. It is affluent, it brings in big crushes of tourists and festivals like Sundance are world renown, he says.
"Where else to come and raise holy terror," Hendricksen says.
But, more so, the officers are worried about the prospects of a school shooting, occurring whenever and at whatever school. Hendricksen, like the others, talks of the Columbine massacre, when two gunmen killed 13 people at the suburban Denver high school.
"Since Columbine, the schools have had, dozens across the country, active shooters," he says. "Columbine woke the law-enforcement community up to what had been happening for years."
After one of the exercises, a team describes their mission. They say they heard a single blank fired. They determined if there were students inside, they did not appear to be threatened. The shooter seemed to be targeting the officers, they say, influencing their strategy. One of the officers, who had been trailing the others, describes seeing a gunman, firing and taking out the dummy suspect.
The officers encounter uncertainty at each corner and in each room. They open doors carefully, worried a suspect might be hiding inside. They hear the distant yelling of other officers echoing through the hallways and the cafeteria. The ‘pop, pop, pop’ of officers firing blanks pierces through the school. More yelling, more popping sounds.
"All suspects are down and accounted for," an officer yells to the others.