Could it happen here?
With the tragic events in Virginia last week, many of us are trying to make sense of it all. While we try to grasp the social, psychological, and spiritual ramifications of such an event, a recurring question emerges: Could it happen here?
Recent history has, unfortunately, given us a simple, troubling answer”yes. Places like Paducah, Kentucky, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and Littleton, Colorado, remind us that these incidents don’t just happen in some distant third world county, or an anonymous metropolis. They happen in middle America; Any Town, USA. Because there seems to be no correlation between the crime rate and the location of occurrence, police departments across the country, regardless of the type of community they serve, must be prepared.
Recognizing that schools are often targets of these crimes, and our children are our most vulnerable citizens, the Truckee police are taking steps to address school safety. TPD has a full time officer assigned as a School Resource Officer (SRO). The SRO”currently, Officer Bryan Berry”works directly with students, faculty, and administrators on issues ranging from truancy to campus security. The SRO’s primary job is not law enforcement, per se, but relationship building and problem solving on campus. That’s not to suggest, however, that the SRO won’t make arrests or issue citations as situations warrant, but the majority of his time is spent mitigating problems, helping students, and supporting staff.
By having an officer on the campus, students can interact with police in their environment, in a non-traditional, non-threatening way. Kids open up to the SRO about what’s going on, not just at school, but in their lives. Through this open communication trust is established. Opportunities emerge to intervene in problems before they fester and grow. It is believed that part of preventing acts of violence on campus is to reduce problems like bullying, and to resolve conflicts.
Study fire departments across the country and you’ll find that most of their time is not spent fighting fires; it’s spent providing services like emergency medical aid, conducting rescues, responding to haz mat incidents. Yet, they spend a large amount of their time training and preparing for fighting fires.
They know that when a fire does strike, the consequences are deadly serious and the impact on lives and property is immense. We would never stand for a fire department that was not prepared to fight a fire, even if they spend a significant portion of their time on other tasks.
There is a parallel in police work. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of an officer having to shoot his/her gun in the line of duty is relatively small. The chances of encountering an “active shooter” incident like the one at Virginia Tech is even smaller. Yet, the potential impact on society when an officer uses deadly force, or when a gunman is on a rampage, is such that failing to adequately prepare is unconscionable.
As previously mentioned, simply stating that Truckee is a “safe” place or has a low crime rate is not sufficient to justify an unprepared or ill-equipped police force.
The Columbine incident in 1999 caused a major paradigm shift in American police tactics. The old method of locking down an incident and waiting for SWAT was no longer practicable. Police departments had to train line officers ” the cop on the beat, the SRO, the detective ” to respond to an active shooter scene and immediately engage, without waiting for SWAT. Despite common misconceptions, this ability to rush in and confront a gunman who is actively shooting people is not innate in human beings; thus, it is not innate in police officers.
Officers must be taught to overcome their emotions and fears to adequately address such a scenario. They must be trained to push past the injured to get to the threat and stop it so that further loss of life is averted, and medical aid can be summoned for the casualties. Only recently has this training, once reserved only for the likes of SWAT teams, permeated all levels and all types of police agencies.
Over the past few months Truckee police officers, through the leadership of Sgt. Ted Bier, have trained at Truckee High and Sierra Middle schools in responding to an active shooter on campus. Additional training is being planned for this summer and will include the allied law enforcement agencies in our area who are likely to respond should the need arise.
As police officers we hope and pray that our town will never suffer the type of tragedies that so many others have. We hope that our cooperative work with the schools, our community, and our kids will be sufficient to avert problems that lead to violence. Our commitment, however, is to always stand ready to respond when our town needs us.