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One year ago this week, a man with an automatic rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Their families and friends are mourning. And for law enforcement, this week is a grim reminder of their colleagues’ mistakes that day. The state of Texas has now passed a law requiring more training to try to avoid repeating those failures. NPR’s Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Everybody agrees on this. Police took too long to directly confront the killer that day – 73 minutes from the arrival of the first officers until the moment a Border Patrol team finally went through a classroom door and shot him. In that time, 376 officers from various agencies showed up and then held back.
CLINT BRUCE: Sympathetic hesitation is actually a fairly normal human impulse. You’re not going? Should I not go if you’re not going?
KASTE: Clint Bruce is former military special operations who now works with police. He says you have to teach them to overcome that impulse in these situations.
BRUCE: A very explicit, very clear guidance that you do not have to pause. You need to go.
KASTE: That was the central lesson of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Police should move in as fast as possible to stop the killing and then stop the dying. And trainers believe the best way to learn this is to do it.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Go back that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMULATED GUNSHOTS)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: I got rear.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: I got him. I got him. I got him.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #4: I got contact rear – contact rear.
KASTE: These Texas cops are running through active-shooter scenarios in a vacant building near Dallas. They’re firing simulated ammunition, trying to find and stop the killer, even as wounded role-players cry for help.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, I’m shot. I’m bleeding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIMULATED GUNSHOTS)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Officer, I’m over here. Help.
KASTE: This is ALERRT. That stands for Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, something created here in Texas two decades ago. Its active-shooter courses have become a federal standard, and now Texas is requiring all its cops to do 16 hours of this training every two years. The courses are updated often. For instance, trainer Randy Knight tells this class that research is showing that there’s rarely a second shooter. So once cops have stopped one killer, they shouldn’t leave wounded people behind to go looking for possible other attackers.
RANDY KNIGHT: Do these victims in here that are bleeding out – do they have time for me to go chase a ghost? No. Because before I even get off this first floor, they’ll have bled out.
KASTE: One clear failure in Uvalde was leadership. A Texas State House report said the role of incident commander was, quote, “not effectively performed by anyone.” This ALERRT training session is stressing the importance of command and that it’s not a matter of rank. Trainer Kevin Willis tells one officer to imagine being the first cop on the scene and how he would identify himself as he calls it in on the radio.
KEVIN WILLIS: Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: Four-two-seven.
WILLIS: Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: Well…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Command.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: …Command.
WILLIS: You are command.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: Oh.
WILLIS: The first officer helps make or break this entire scene.
KASTE: Command can be transferred as the incident progresses and more people show up, preferably to an officer outside the building, but it needs to be someone who knows the situation and is willing to take command.
Steve Ijames says willingness is key. Based in Missouri, he trains officers around the country. And when Uvalde comes up, he tells cops that they also need to prepare for this mentally.
STEVE IJAMES: Talk with your family and acknowledge that, though unlikely, this job may call me to step into an environment on behalf of others. Reconcile that decision before you have to make it – before the hair stands up on the back of their neck.
KASTE: And as an example of mental preparedness, he points to the police who responded to the active-shooter attack on a school in Nashville in March. It’s seen in police circles as a textbook case of doing this right. Sadly, for those who are looking for examples of cops responding to active shooters right or wrong, there’s always a new supply of case studies for the trainers to choose from.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Irving, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
American police see Uvalde as a lesson in what not to do. Trainers say police need to make sure they have the skills and emotional commitment to risk their lives to stop a killer.