The May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered, is the deadliest mass shooting in the nation so far this year.
The Uvalde massacre, the most recent of what has become the latest incident of mass shootings at U.S. schools going back at least 20 years, generated calls to police departments from concerned parents wanting to know if their local law enforcement agency is prepared for such incidents.
In Tustin, the answer is yes.
The Tustin Police Department stages active-shooter trainings multiple times per year, Police Chief Stu Greenberg said.
“We’ve been focused on training for a long time,” Greenberg said. “Active shooter training, complex event training, response, mitigation … It seems like in this country, we keep having these events. Every time we have a decent sized one, everybody is very frustrated, including us.”
For the most recent training exercise on Oct. 7, Tustin Police Department set up an active-shooter scenario at a local vacant elementary school. Patrol officers responded to a call of an active shooter and were given little information ahead of time on what they would encounter once arriving on campus. This exercise had been scheduled well before the Uvalde shooting, officials said.
“With different situations that have occurred throughout the nation we know that this is potentially something we have to respond to and want to make sure that when we do respond, we are as proficient as possible in identifying whatever we need to do and executing whatever purpose we are there to serve and keeping as many people as safe as possible,” said Det. Chris Natividad, one of the organizers of the exercise.
Officers trained in groups of three, each in a patrol vehicle, as they arrived in rapid succession to the school. Responders were dispatched in a way similar to how units would be dispatched to these types of calls, Natividad said.
The officers navigated their vehicles through cone patterns on the school grounds designed to simulate obstacles they might encounter on a school ground, the detective said.
Once arriving on the campus, a school employee desperately directed the officers to the location of the shooter. In this case, the shooter was outside of a classroom on a large patch of grass on one side of the school.
As they made their way toward the shooter, the officers come upon bloodied “victims” who had sustained injuries to varying degrees. With the echoes of simulated gunshot blasts as a guide, the officers advanced quickly toward a classroom.
As smoke detectors went off, along with other noises intended to distract the officers, they made their way into a smoke-filled room. As they advanced into the school they encountered one suspect, who was not armed, all the while hearing the continued sounds of gunshots.
“We want them to have to overcome a lot of different objectives on the way,” Natividad said. “For example, the suspect who is unarmed is going to present an interesting issue to them because he is obviously a threat but he is not armed.”
Officers entered another room and saw more injured victims. No gunshots were heard for a short period of time, but then the shots rang out again.
“We are going to evaluate what their thought process is while they are handling an unarmed suspect while an armed suspect is continuing to shoot,” Natividad said.
Responders heard more gunfire sounds coming from a playground in the back of the school where they saw the shooter in the distance with a hostage. Quickly, the suspect pulled the hostage into a bathroom. When the officers entered, the suspect was holding a gun to the hostage’s head.
Once each team neutralized the threat, the officers began to treat those who were injured.
A debriefing took place at the conclusion of the exercise, where evaluators broke down the scenario and the actions of the responders, moment by moment. The scenario was repeated five times throughout the day, each with a different group of responders.
“This is a very comprehensive, very complex incident,” Greenberg said. “The idea is we don’t want anybody to respond to an incident the first time and never have thought about all the different situations they could encounter… It’s the world we live in right now.”