Police train to handle large-scale school shootings
Kids are screaming as police officers push through the doors of Rosemount High School’s Performing Arts Center. Inside, they’re sprawled on the floor or crouched in the seats, taking cover as best they can. On stage, a student with a gun holds a classmate hostage, threatening to kill him if police come any closer.
It’s got the drama of a movie scene, and aside from the protective clothing and paintball-style masks everybody is wearing it feels like the real thing. It’s not, though. The exercise is one part of a daylong training session meant to prepare police officers for the kind of large-scale shooting incident they hope they’ll never have to handle.
Police officers from Farmington and Rosemount cooperated on the training session last week at RHS. Over the course of two days, nearly every officer in each department got instruction on the right way to advance down long, open hallways or deal with a gunman who has holed up in a classroom filled with students. It’s all about helping officers understand what it takes to get shooting victims to safety, and that sometimes doing so means putting themselves in harm’s way.
“A big part of that is helping the officers understand the priorities of life,” said Rosemount police officer Mike Dahlstrom, who led much of last week’s training. “There’s a scale that we train that citizens and hostages are first and second on the scale, police officers are third and suspects are fourth.
“It kind of opens the police officers’ eyes that you have signed up for a job where you’re putting your lives on the line for these other people.”
Dahlstrom and a handful of other officers from around the county attended special training to prepare them to lead last week’s sessions. Dahlstrom has also conducted training for school staff so they are prepared in emergency situations. Those teachers and other staff members are the first line of defense when it comes to saving lives, he said.
At last week’s session police officers ran through the basics of the tactics before lunch, but the real drills started in the afternoon. Using simulated ammunition and a group of Boy Scouts and police Explorers recruited to play victims and shooters, police officers put what they’d learned into practice in situations that were as real as they could make them in a building where summer school had just gotten out of session and kids were playing games in the gym down the hall.
In between runs, Dahlstrom and the other trainers shifted the scene so officers weren’t doing the same thing twice. They might enter the auditorium from the back of the room one time, from the side of the stage another. The shooter might be in a different place. Victims might react differently.
Incidents like the ones police were training for might seem unlikely in cities like Farmington or Rosemount, but every time police hear about a shooting like the one earlier this year in Newtown, Conn., or at Accent Signage in Minneapolis it drives home the need to be prepared. In 2010, a student brought a gun to Hastings Middle School but was unable to fire a shot because he’d loaded the wrong ammunition.
“It’s one of rare things that may never happen in a career, but when it does you want that training,” Rosemount police officer Jason Waage said.
“I think there’s that fear that it could happen here,” Farmington officer Bob Sauter said. “If something bad happens, it’s on me.”
Officers also liked the idea of training together. Being so close, if something big happens in Farmington, Rosemount officers are likely going to be there to help, and vice versa. Going through training together means they should all react the same way. It also allows them to get familiar with the buildings in each others’ communities.
It’s knowledge they’re happy to have, even if they hope never to use it.