Portland police train with latest strategies to deal with gunmen: ‘Get in and engage immediately’

Posted May 07, 2013, at 3:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — When two gunmen went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado 14 years ago, the first police on the scene set up a perimeter and waited until a special response team arrived.

“They did exactly as they’d been trained to do,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. “But they waited a long time before entry.”

In response to that tragedy — in which teen shooters wounded 23 people, killed 12 other students and one teacher before committing suicide — law enforcement agencies nationwide began implementing new policies about active shooter scenarios.

Police began devising new strategies that focused on getting to and neutralizing the gunmen as quickly as possible, Sauschuck said.

First, common policies dictated that once at least four officers were on-scene, they’d enter the building, Sauschuck said. On Tuesday, Portland police were employing the latest best practice shared by law enforcement on the subject by training teams of two, the chief said.

They practiced having two-person teams break through heavy barricaded doors and went through a series of gunman scenarios using simulated ammunition, which represented the culmination of three-months of training for Portland police funded by an approximately $30,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.

Sauschuck said the training was scheduled before the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December, but that tragedy helped reinforce the importance of preparing officers for active shooter scenarios.

By the end, all 162 Portland police officers received the training, which took place in vacant rooms at the Portland Ocean Terminal building on the Maine State Pier.

“This scenario is [one in which] you’re driving down the street, a call comes in that shots are fired two blocks away,” Sauschuck said. “What do you do?”

Gone are the days when the patrol officer would wait until a special weapons and tactics unit was convened, equipped and deployed to deal with the threat. In Portland, the first officers on the scene have now been trained to be the first ones through the door — and in the case of Tuesday’s training, even if that door is 800 pounds and tied shut with a steel chain, they can get through it.

Once past the fortified door, the officers ran to a second-floor station where a frantic bystander yelled for their attention. A smoke machine made it difficult to see and the recorded sounds of blood-curdling screams and gunshots made it difficult to hear.

Over the course of five hours of classroom discussions and 10 hours of live scenarios, the officers responded to myriad active shooter scenes, some with hostages, some with already “wounded” victims, and some without innocent people.

“We want the officers to feel, as much as they can, what one of these situations would be like,” he said. “Where you see footage of tragedies around the country, like in schools, kids are screaming, there are people running out of the building, there is gunfire.”

Conducting the training were senior members of Portland’s tactical response unit, who themselves were trained to oversee the exercises by a Louisiana State University group in November, the chief said.

Sauschuck also used the occasion Tuesday to highlight the latest police recommendations for civilians caught in an active shooter scenario. He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is promoting a “run, hide and fight” chain of priorities — to get out and get away if at all possible, to hide in a secure location if running away isn’t an option and to engage the assailant only if the other options aren’t available.

“Fighting, in these cases, could mean a number of things,” he said. “It could mean screaming … or throwing a chair. Anything to buy time to escape.”