By Grace Ashford, The New York Times Company
The police officers crept through the remarkably realistic school hallway, ears trained for imitation gunshots. Sidestepping a child-size dummy, they advanced on the classroom where an actor was screaming.
“Shots fired,” the instructor called, urging the officers toward what would in real life be gunfire. “What do we gotta do?”
Officers — many of whom have never fired their weapon at another person, let alone been fired upon — must answer that question correctly. Whether a dozen arrive or just one, training dictates that they must engage, even if they risk death. The school shooting in May in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults died as police officers hesitated, demonstrates the price of failure.
The State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany, New York, is where the terrors of the future are simulated, studied and, perhaps, prevented as part of a vast infrastructure for tragedy. Since 2017, tens of millions have been spent by the federal government on mass shooter training, and states have spent even more.
And while some efforts aim at prevention — a new domestic terror unit inside the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services collates information from social services, schools and police departments to identify threats — most happen only once an attack has begun.
So across the nation, schools teach children how to flee and to hide and to fight, and hospitals prepare for entire classes to be admitted. But as children return to school this month, the memories of the previous bloody year make it clear that such efforts alone cannot stem the tide of violence.
The 1,100-acre facility, which costs more than $50 million, simulates a terrifying set of scenarios, from terrorist attacks to flash flooding. Its crowning glory is the Cityscape, an airplane hangar converted into a small town, complete with a bar, a school and a shopping mall — all built to be bombed out and shot up. There are framed photos on walls, coffee cups on cafe tables and, on a teacher’s desk, a VHS copy of the Shaquille O’Neal throwback “Kazaam.”
“We put a lot of attention into making it as realistic as possible,” said Jackie Bray, commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, which oversees training for the state’s police officers and emergency workers.
“One of the reasons that we train, and one of the reasons that we train consistently, is that we’re asking people to do things that are really against an instinct,” Bray added.
Whether efforts like these will suffice is difficult to say.
There are no national standards for police training, leading to variations town by town and state by state. Most forces are small and rural, lacking the resources or organizational support of city departments. And while the state covers training and even provides some lodging for New York officers, some resource-strapped departments may still struggle to take advantage.
Even the best preparation is no guarantee of success: A New York Times analysis of 433 actual and attempted mass shootings from 2001 to 2021 showed nearly 60% ended before police arrived. In all, data showed police subdued gunmen in fewer than one-third of all attacks.
“You see these stories, and they’re terrible, and hope that they’re never something you have to deal with,” said Sgt. Chris Callahan of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, who did an active-shooter course in June. “You hope if it ever did — if I was ever called upon — that I would be able to harken back to this, to this training.”
The quandary is hardly a new one. In a 1947 report, military historian S.L.A. Marshall noted that fewer than 25% of combat troops found the courage to actually fire their weapons during World War II. While his methodology has since been shown to be less than scientific, his conclusion has persisted as a symbol of the human proclivity for hesitance in the face of danger.
Mass shootings create a similar conundrum. When a shooter barricaded the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, police waited nearly three hours to move in while victims bled out. Two years later, when a teenage gunman attacked students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17, an armed officer retreated to safety. In May, the nation watched as hundreds of officers in Uvalde stood by for nearly an hour at Robb Elementary School.
When a person encounters a threat, eyes dilate and heart rate increases, preparing the body to leap into action. The brain’s stimulus response is heightened, but the prefrontal cortex is restricted, compromising decision-making and hand-eye coordination.
Specialized military and SWAT teams often seek to recruit people who are naturally cool under pressure. But rank-and-file officers can do little in the face of biology, said Arne Nieuwenhuys, who studies human performance at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Their ability to deliberately control their response under high stress is simply very limited,” he explained.
For those who come to the State Preparedness Training Center, learning how their bodies respond to stress is just one of the many lessons learned in courses that range from two to five days.
Envisioned by Gov. George Pataki in the wake of the attacks on 9/11, the center opened in 2006 to let police, firefighters and emergency medics train together. Enrollment has never reached the 25,000 a year that the governor hoped for; its peak, in 2019, was half that. The center was constructed with a combination of state and federal money and provides training free of charge to all New York law enforcement officers.
In active-shooter trainings, groups of 24 navigate hallways and clear rooms, among other drills. They practice responding to domestic incidents and to reports of gunfire in shopping centers and schools. After feedback from instructors, they run the exercises again.
In one scenario, officers must respond to shots in a mall. They arrive to eerie silence. Alert for clues, they scour each shop — the cafe, the Army-Navy store — before finding and engaging the gunman holed up in a travel agent’s storefront.
The imperative of this kind of engagement began after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Police officers did what they had been trained to do: secure the perimeter. Then they waited for a SWAT team. In the meantime, nearly a dozen students died.
Stallman, the center’s assistant director, has been instructing officers since those early days, and he remembers “a lot of pushback.”
“It was extremely difficult to convince patrol officers that they needed to go in there,” he said, because officers for years had left those tasks to specialized teams.
“‘I don’t have the vest,’” he said officers complained. “‘I don’t have the training that they have. I don’t have the long guns that they have. Now you’re telling me I need to go in and do their job?’”
Their concerns were not unfounded: A review of 84 active-shooter attacks by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University in San Marcos showed that one-third of officers who responded alone were shot.
“Some departments did not necessarily change their thinking; some departments were a bit ambiguous as to whether that officer should wait” for additional officers, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. “In the wake of Uvalde, if there was any ambiguity before, there isn’t anymore about the responsibility of the first responding officer.”
Stallman said that he hoped to help officers come to grips with idea that they must put themselves into situations that they might not walk away from.
“That it is difficult,” he said. “But if they don’t do it, then people die.”
In the past, training programs had aimed to inoculate officers from their own stress — the idea being that an individual could build immunity to the fight-or-flight response with exposure. But relatively little attention has been paid to assessing the impact of training on real-life police work.
“We don’t even collect data on police shootings, let alone analyze whether or not the training that the officer had was instrumental in the success or failure,” said Stephen James, a researcher from Washington State University who studies stress and policing policy.
James instead favors skills training that incorporates manageable amounts of stress to build confidence. Realistic programs like the ones in Oriskany can be helpful, he said, if they follow evidence-based curricula.
“What we need to do, instead of trying to get people used to the stress side of the equation, is build the resource side of the equation,” he explained.
Nieuwenhuys, the researcher in New Zealand, has begun to see something similar. In a 2010 simulation measuring the marksmanship of police officers facing an assailant who occasionally shot back, he found that officers were able to improve their performance in high-anxiety circumstances. Preliminary results suggest the effect could be replicable in more serious circumstances, he adds, but only if officers receive the right training.
Then there is the crucial question of whether any clinical result will be replicable when it counts.
Katherine Schweit, the former head of the FBI’s active-shooter program, believes all training is valuable. But even so, there are no guarantees.
“We all want a simple answer,” Schweit said. “That’s an impossible goal. And the reason it’s an impossible goal is because we are not machines. We are humans.”
Outside the classroom at the Oriskany center, the officers sprang into action. Using the door frame as cover, they fired their bright blue imitation weapons into the room, felling the gunman with four neat pops.
Then they heard the screams in the next room — a hostage, held at gunpoint by a second shooter. They paused only a moment before unleashing a cloud of phantom bullets on the gunman, ending the standoff in 25 seconds flat.
Soon an instructor, E.J. Weeks, was giving feedback, offering praise for their communication and formation. Could they have moved more quickly?
“We have to move direct, direct to that threat, mitigate the threat,” Weeks reminded them. “Stop the killing so that we can do what?”
“Stop the dying,” the officers chorused.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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