For the day after the tragedy
In the post-Columbine era (April 20, 1999) police leadership and trainers have been nearly obsessed with rapid response to a mass shooting event. This has created an entirely separate career field for police trainers in advanced patrol tactics to dynamic events.
Most departments have made vast changes in their training. Granted there are a few who still believe that it will not happen “here” but their numbers are dwindling. Several state training commissions are adding these topics to yearly in-service classes and in their recommended police academy curriculums. You cannot attend any police conference without being overwhelmed with the array of rapid deployment tactical equipment for sale. Budgets and purchasing of equipment has adapted to meet the need. Patrol rifle training is now commonplace, where twenty years ago it was unheard of.
So we purchase, train and consider ourselves ready, correct? In my opinion, we have only yet to begin to reach our goal. I have visited and evaluated many departments and teams and most do the same thing. They get the call, respond, seek the shooter, and neutralize. At that time, we do high fives and game over. Right? Wrong! We often neglect post mass shooting considerations. We need to plan and train for the next steps to get back to normalcy.
We need to learn from the recovery efforts of those who have endured mass homicides and plan accordingly. I have a list of concerns we need to consider, and this list is in no way comprehensive. Each locality and event will be different, and I would recommend that chiefs and sheriffs think about conducting a table top exercise (TTE) and perform a functional analysis of your response to such an event, and then evaluate the post incident plans and response.
1. Survivor reunification
One of the first tasks that we will shoulder is reunification. It matters not where the event occurred, this will be one of the first post events to tackle. Employers will be seeking employees, school staff will be accounting for students and concerned family will be seeking the status of their family members. Schools usually practice this within their accountability part of fire drills. One place to review in your community are the larger mega-churches where their nursery may have more children being cared for than you imagined. When pre-planning any location, review with leadership their internal plans for employee/student accountability and build from there.
2. Mass casualty response
Mass casualties and mass fatalities concerns will be another topic. Although most police will divert this to emergency management, it is up for review. If you had a specific number of injured, do you have enough ambulances and trained medical responders to respond to meet this surge? I know many tactical teams have their own tactical medics, but consider having some police officers cross-trained. Should there be mass fatalities, can your local morgue handle this higher than normal count? There are federal teams for mass morgue events but these come with a hefty price tag; who will authorize this expenditure? Is your local coroner on board with drills of this nature and does his/her office have contingency plans?
3. Mutual aid agreements
Support logistics for any mass event may require mutual aid agreements/understandings. When was the last time you reviewed these and are they legally current? As elections come and go, newly elected public officials may nullify existing older agreements. Forensics will be one logistical issue to plan for depending on the size and breadth of the crime scene. Should the event go through several rooms and corridors, how long will it take to process and handle before you will need support?
Consider multiple areas of operations and logistical support to each. For example, you have a vast crime scene to manage to start with. Your casualties have been sent to various hospitals and trauma centers due to medical surge management on these facilities. Now you have to account for which victim has been sent where.
Each medical facility can become its own security location, and probably out of your county. Adding a few more locations can become a security issue (such as the perpetrator’s home, secondary crime scenes and so forth). If you have thought of the idea of a unified command with different branches for support, you are on the right track. No, I am not the NIMS police but this is what it is made for—managing the larger complex incidents.
4. Consider the media
One thing that will likely come up will be the need for a public information officer (PIO) to meet the crushing media demands. The one officer that usually handles the media as a collateral duty will be overwhelmed and will need assistance. I would strongly recommend that you consider letting your county or state emergency management assist in forming a joint information center (JIC) to oversee all the media demands from all the entities involved into a joint operation. Additionally, this will probably be a media overload for locals. Aside from the local television stations, expect national and freelance journalists as well. Prepare now for the onslaught.
Crowd management and traffic planning are long term considerations as onlookers will want to come by and see it for themselves to add to your woes. Of course you have opportunistic protesters for whatever political ends will arrive to fuel their rhetoric and causes. In the past, you could have funerals which should be a solemn and healing event but now will be a media event with others attending for whatever reasons. In this area the PIO will be extremely helpful in getting the word out to local media of changes in traffic patterns, areas to avoid due to events, and what events are public or private. After a few days, the rest of the world will go on with their lives and the morning commutes will get difficult if not managed.
5. Responder welfare
Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD) counseling and considerations for all first responders should be made available. This is a known. Do you have teams and support on call to work with your staff and the others who have been subjected to overwhelming odds? There is no reason to create walking psychologically wounded within our ranks. Get listings of the helping agencies and support efforts for all of your first responders now and keep the file current; we must protect our own from the horrors of the job.
Recovery to a new normal is more than when all of the support leaves and it is just you and your department again. It may take months before it all becomes normal—or a new normal. As the months go on, there will be anniversaries, memorials and reminders. There will also be places that will never achieve their old normal and struggle with their new.
We as leaders should know that on any given day we can inherit a bad day at our doorstep. After it lands in your lap is not the time to ponder how you are going to handle this. Unfortunately, far too many of our colleagues have inherited this bad day, and we must learn from their trials and mistakes.
Perform your duty as a leader and prepare to lead your staff when the ill winds shift towards you. ■
William L. “Bill” Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department and served in field operations, investigations and support services, and completed his career there as the director of training. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and other professional associations.