BARNSTABLE — Running toward a gunman armed with a high-powered automatic weapon during the chaos of a mass shooting invites almost certain death. Yet that is exactly what is expected of law enforcement officers.
With the number of such shootings in the U.S. on the rise, police officials here have been considering how to make it more likely that officers confronted with a mass murderer will put their own lives on the line to protect others.
The Cape Cod Regional Law Enforcement Council wants to train all 500 police officers on Cape Cod on how to respond to an “active shooter,” and they are hoping Barnstable County coffers will supply the seed money. Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson has asked county officials for $250,000 on behalf of the council.
Frederickson met with the Assembly of Delegates Standing Committee on Public Services on July 13, the same day a video was released showing officers hanging back in a hallway at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas while 19 children and two teachers were gunned down. Nearly 400 officers responded to the school shooting but waited for an hour before confronting and killing the perpetrator of the massacre.
Criticism of the responders at Uvalde has been intense.
What the Uvalde tragedy points out, said Frederickson, is the need for police to be ready to handle an attack of that kind with purpose rather than confusion.
“You’ve got to roll to the sounds of the gun; you’ve got to go in and do whatever needs to be done, even sacrifice your life if you need to,” said Frederickson. He said that lesson is drilled into police officers across Cape Cod. “What we lack is the muscle memory that only comes through hands-on, force-on-force training,” he said.
Such training would involve mock shooter scenarios, done in local facilities to familiarize officers with their layout, and the use of volunteers to play the role of students in the building. Police would be armed with paintball guns.
The last time all of the region’s police officers received training in responding to a mass shooting was in 2002, prompted by the slaughter of 15 people at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. That training cost $330,000. It was paid for mostly with a federal grant for $250,000. Police departments sent members to be trained as instructors. Those members came back and trained their fellow department members.
That same model would be used this time.
The activities paid for by the $250,000 being asked of the county this time would not include a comprehensive program such as ASHER (Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response), which incorporates incident command, tactics, and rescue response to get medics safely into the building, Frederickson said.
“Our more immediate concern,” he said, “is to look at the ground floor, that the average officer on the shift is able to respond as best he can.”
The funding would also include evaluation of equipment and a countywide review of policies related to active shooter situations.
Wellfleet Police Chief Michael Hurley said last week that a combination of diminished funding from the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee and the limitations caused by Covid-19 have affected training for the last few years.
An active shooter training session was scheduled last December for police from the Outer Cape towns in the Nauset Regional School District, but it had to be canceled because so many officers had Covid, Hurley said.
The Eastham Police Dept. is now organizing an active shooter training event while school is out this summer. Chief Adam Bohannon said in an email that the officers from the departments of towns in the regional school district, along with National Park Service rangers, will train together at Nauset Regional High School.
“One of these horrific incidents could happen anywhere at any time,” Bohannon said. “Every police officer, whether in a large department or a small department, must be highly trained in how to respond to an active shooter situation.”
Nauset Regional School District Supt. Brooke Clenchy said she and her staff meet regularly with six Outer and Lower Cape police departments.
“We have agreed that putting school safety as a priority is paramount,” said Clenchy by email last week. “We have agreed to jointly work on retraining and new training for staff and students.”
During the July 13 meeting with the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Services, Frederickson said public confidence in the police has been eroding over the last few years “for a lot of social reasons.”
On Monday, he was asked by a reporter if he was referring to incidents such as George Floyd’s death at the hands of police that prompted a national public outcry and a call for police reform. (The Mass. legislature has enacted a law that includes more mandatory training, officer certification, and restrictions on the use of force.)
Frederickson confirmed that he was referring to Floyd’s murder and other similar incidents, but he declined to comment further, other than to say that he believes the police departments on the Cape have done a good job of maintaining public confidence with community policing.
“We want to instill confidence that we’re capable of protecting our children in school,” the Yarmouth chief told the standing committee. “We want to get out the message that we’re not going to depend on teachers with pencils and books to protect themselves, so we need a competent force to do what has to be done.”
Frederickson was referring to a program known as ALICE (for Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) that focuses in part on what teachers and students can do to distract a shooter.
“Basically, teachers are defenseless,” Frederickson told the Independent on Monday. “It’s not their job to protect their kids from an armed intruder.”
Hurley said he believes the Wellfleet community has confidence in its police. Still, he said, “There’s always room for improvement, and training is the best way to stay on top. We want our community to know we are trained to head to the threat.”
Bohannon said the police in Eastham have the public’s confidence as well. “Being proactive with ongoing training is just one of the many reasons the confidence exists,” he said.
Members of the Assembly’s standing committee voiced general support for the training proposal. “I absolutely agree the more the training and the better the training, the better prepared you will be, saving lives and protecting lives,” said committee chair Thomas O’Hara.
Member Randi Potash characterized the program as “still in its embryonic stages” and suggested that Frederickson return with a formal business plan and a budget in a few weeks.
The standing committee planned to report to the full Assembly of Delegates at its July 20 meeting.