They crept down the hallway, two abreast, draped in their flak jackets and helmets and with weapons drawn.
A dispatcher’s voice crackled over the radio: “loading dock, amphitheater, for an individual armed with a handgun.”
City Police, State Police, State Park Police and members of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department gathered this week at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to practice responding to terror scenarios involving an active shooter.
“It’s reality based and we try to do this as realistically as possible,” said State Park Police Lt. Donald Benware, as the officers took turns walking through the theater’s backstage area, confronting a “shooter,” and exchanging a volley of simulated rounds.
“We try to put the officers at a higher stress level (in the training). Let’s face it, we’re all human beings. Your blood pressure is going to go up. Get the adrenaline level up so they can feel that adrenaline rush and make sound decisions,” Benware said. “Also, it’s very important be able to come down off that. After an incident happens, they may be moved to another location and they need to be able to bring that heart rate down, bring their decision-making skills back into a more focused ability.”
One benefit of involving multiple agencies in the scenarios is that it builds a familiarity between law enforcement officials who don’t normally work alongside with one another. “Doing this type of training, we all get to see different faces and know different people and how they react in situations, so you have a little bit of a confidence, a little bit of an edge in a worse-case scenario if you have to respond to something like this,” Benware said.
Over the past 50 years, incidents have prompted law enforcement agencies to re-think their roles in response. In the 1960s, police departments began building special teams in reaction to terror-based incidents. The city of Los Angeles led the way with their Special Weapons and Tactics unit, or SWAT. But, the police response to active shooter incidents began to change following the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Police showed up almost immediately after the shooting began, but waited for SWAT officers, who didn’t enter the school until much later. Police departments today focus more on stopping the shooter as quickly as possible, rather than waiting for SWAT teams to arrive, according to the 2014 report “Critical Issues In Policing Series,” published by Police Executive Research Forum.
Since that time, names like Columbine and Sandy Hook, Parkland and Virginia Tech became part of the sad map in American consciousness.
Last month, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo announced he has a team of four deputies assigned to schools throughout the county who patrol during the day shift as well as the afternoon shift, and periodically conduct a school walk-thru to interact with students and school staff. While notable incidents have occurred in schools, some of the deadliest single day mass shootings in U.S. history have recently occurred where large gatherings of people come together: 49 people were killed and more than 50 injured inside an Orlando nightclub in 2016, and last October 58 people were killed and nearly 500 injured when a 64-year-old man opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers in Las Vegas.
“We pull scenarios right out of the headlines,” explained Saratoga Springs Police Department Lt. Shane Crooks. “We look at different incidents that happen around the country and the world and we take those and fit them into a situation with the area that we have here. Any place you have a large gathering increases your risk of an attack. And this multi-force reality-based training here - we’re training where an incident could occur,” he said.
“The four agencies represented here today are the ones who will be here if something happens. By doing this type of training, we are preparing. We’ll have a better response, we’ll handle the situation better and keep everything safer,” Crooks said. “Every officer here is also learning the layout of SPAC, the grounds and the amphitheater itself, so if they do have to respond to a call, they’ll have that knowledge ahead of time.”
“This is in our jurisdiction. This is our home and our responsibility. That’s why we’re choosing this venue,” Benware added.
“We did have an incident back in the ‘70s in Saratoga Springs, at St. Peter’s. So, it can happen,” said Crooks, noting a December 1975 incident when a 32-year-old man recently discharged from the U.S. Navy aimed his .22-cal. handgun out his second-floor apartment window and fired four shots into St. Peter’s Elementary School playground. Two 7-year-old girls were injured.
“Every time something happens we re-evaluate our training, we change our tactics to prepare our officers to better respond to an incident,” Crooks said. “We want to respond as quickly as possible and we train the officers that we need to have a fast response to eliminate the threat.”