How prepared are police to handle an 'active shooter'?

March 6, 2013

It was the 1993-94 Oswald bank robberies that changed everything, according to Pewaukee Village Police Chief Ed Baumann.

Father and son Ted and James Oswald were eventually caught after a shootout with police that left one officer dead.

"I think we were outgunned at the time," Baumann remembered. "They had more like assault weapons, and we had shotguns. Some guys were walking around with revolvers and they had semiautomatics and .50 calibers. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen."

Such scenarios are happening more frequently these days. From the Azana Spa shooting in Brookfield to the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, active shooter-type scenarios are a growing concern among law enforcement officials, no less so in Waukesha County.

So how prepared are we?

An "active shooter," according to the Department of Homeland Security, is someone actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. Typically, the shooter uses firearms, and there is no pattern or method to the selection of victims.

Waukesha NOW spoke with officials from 12 different departments, including the Sheriff's Department, to betterunderstand how prepared police officers are for an active shooter scenario, including extensive interviews with City of Waukesha Deputy Chief Dennis Angle, Village of Pewaukee Police Chief Ed Baumann and Village of Hartland Deputy Chief Michael Bagin.

All the police officials agreed policing has come a long way since the Oswald robberies when it comes to tactics, training and weaponry.

Every mass shooting, both locally and nationally, is an opportunity for departments to review the skills and equipment they have available and decide: Is it enough?

"An incident of great magnitude always reveals learning opportunities and since our whole business tends to be reactive to changes in the way peoplecommit crimes. We are constantly evolving," Bagin said.


Oswald to Columbine

The murder of Waukesha Police Capt. James Lutz by James and Ted Oswald was an eye-opener for Waukesha County police departments. According to the criminal complaint, when they were arrested, the men had in their possession two Springfield rifles, a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun, a .22-caliber long rifle handgun with a homemade silencer attached, and a 9mm semiautomatic handgun.

They had armor-piercing bullets, hollow-point bullets, several rifle magazines containing assorted 7.62mm bullets and even military-type incendiary bullets made to explode on impact.

At the time, officers were equipped with department-issued service revolvers, which could fire up to six rounds before needing to be reloaded, and, for long-range targets, a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot.

The effectiveness of their weapons may be summed up best by James Oswald himself, interviewed by police after his arrest.

"I can't believe we're still alive," he told police. "We hit a tree at 60 mph with 50 cops pointing guns at us. I don't know how I got this far."

Bagin, who has been with the Hartland Police for 27 years, said the department upgraded its weaponry shortly after that incident.

"The weapons we had at the time - we realized we needed to upgrade, so we went with higher calibers on the rifles and the handguns we used at the time," he said.

Department administrators were hesitant to go into detail about the weapons they currently use, citing concerns about public safety, but were able to speak in general terms. Every department equips its officers with a semiautomatic handgun, a bulletproof vest and either a stun gun, pepper spray, or both.

With the exception of Oconomowoc Lake police, every officer in Waukesha County also has access to either an AR-15 or M4 assault rifle, kept in the patrolman's vehicle. Oconomowoc Lake Police Chief and Village Administrator Don Wiemer said the department has budgeted for assault rifles and expected to have them in vehicles in two months.

All departments contacted, with the exception of the Village of Pewaukee, also keep a shotgun with either lethal or nonlethal ammunition in the squad car.

Most departments equip squad cars with heavier protective equipment, such as ballistic shields or heavy-duty body armor, with the exception of the villages of Pewaukee, Eagle and Oconomowoc Lake. Both Pewaukee and Eagle said they have recently ordered such equipment. It is also not unusual for larger departments to have higher-caliber rifles and other specialized equipment secured at the department's headquarters, utilized primarily by SWAT officers.


Columbine to Sandy Hook

The Columbine High School shootings in 1999 in Colorado, which left 15 dead and 24 injured, forced law enforcement to change tactics when it came to active shooters.

The pre-Columbine response was to create a perimeter, isolate the shooter and then send in a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to address the threat through negotiations or a methodical plan of attack.

The City of Waukesha Police Department operates its own tactical unit, as does the Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's tactical unit, composed of approximately 40 officers, is utilized by several other police departments, including the villages of Eagle, Summit, Big Bend, Oconomowoc Lake, City of Oconomowoc, villages of Menomonee Falls and North Prairie.

The villages of Hartland and Pewaukee share a tactical unit, along with Chenequa, Delafield, Pewaukee, Brookfield, Muskego, New Berlin and Mukwonago, called the Lake Area CriticalIncident Team. The team was formed in 1982 by Chenequa and each participating police departments supply resources and officers trained in SWAT tactics to the team.

The tactics changed greatly after Columbine. You still have time to address threats through methodical plans of attack, Angle said, but at what cost?

"When you suddenly start doing all that, you know, I hate to say it but your body count is increasing under a conventional response," he said.

Village of Big Bend Police Chief Michael Hartert put it bluntly: "Every 15 seconds somebody is dying in that type of situation, on a national average."

The post-Columbine response, called "rapid deployment," means the threat must be immediately dealt with by the responding officers, who increasingly are being trained in basic SWAT tactics.

"We don't look at those situations as exclusive to a SWAT team," Bagin said. "We have tried to pass along portions of that (training) to the patrol officer."

All departments contacted train their officers for an active shooter scenario, but only the villages of Pewaukee, Hartland, Summit and Chenequa police departments, as well as the City of Waukesha, said they provide officers SWAT training at Waukesha County Technical College, one of the largest police training centers in the state.

Brian Dorow, assistant dean in the college's criminal justice program, said the program is a leader in the state when it comes to active-shooter training.

"We want to create a file in the officer's brain, where when they arrive on the scene it is not a totally unfamiliar scenario," he said.

The program specializes in scenario-based training, creating realistic, immersive situations in which officers are expected to think critically and act decisively.

Bagin said police training is not necessarily about learning how to handle every specific scenario. Instead, officers need to have the tools available to respond to irrational behavior.

"While it is possible to have good guidelines and good training, a police officer will be faced with things sometimes that they have never thought about, and that is what scenario-based training is for," Bagin said.

The weeklong SWAT training teaches officers the tactics necessary to clear rooms, assault buses and cars and safely execute search warrants.

After completing training, SWAT team members have more requirements. All officers are expected to do a minimum of 24 hours of additional in-service training a year, which can range from tactical emergency medical service training to emergency vehicle operations. Almost all officers in the county exceed that minimum.

SWAT team members are required to train an additional 100 to 150 hours a year, depending on the department. But is it enough?

Angle said that the Waukesha Police Department has everything it needs - training, equipment, strategies - but the police force is, in the end, a reactive institution.

"The tough part is, you are always going to be behind the timeline, because when does that 911 call hit? Usually after the rounds have already been fired, so now you are trying to play catch up with the suspects," Angle said.


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