Ready for the unthinkable

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 6, 2005

Many residents have watched in horror as CNN and other TV news casts showed scenes of blood and violence at what is supposed to be the one of the safe places to send children – school.

Demopolis and surrounding police have spent the last two days training for just such an incident, an incident that no one wants to think about, but one that has happened all too often to be ignored.

“The instant you believe it can’t happen here is the time it comes back and bites you on the ankle,” said Rusty Mascari, Chief Deputy with the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s easier to prepare for something and never need it than never have the training and need it.”

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The Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office has already trained all its deputies as has the Alexander City Police Department, also located in Tallapoosa County.

“We’re working to get 100 percent of the county agencies trained for such an incident,” he said.

Mascari was in Demopolis Tuesday and Wednesday helping local – and some not so local – agencies prepare for the unthinkable.

“We have officers from the Demopolis Police Department, Chickasaw Police Department, Linden Police Department, Marengo County Sheriff’s Office, Hale County Sheriff’s Office, Camden Police Department, Red Bay Police Department from way up north Alabama, and Bayou La Batre Police Department down near Mobile, training with us,” Marty Hoven, of the Demopolis Police Department, said. “It’s been a good turnout.”

The training began with classroom work and ended with a field training exercise at Demopolis Middle School after school hours. Mascari said the training is for patrol officers because they are the first responders.

“When Columbine occurred in 1999, law enforcement had never been taught how to deal with such a situation,” he said. “Patrol is the first responders, but in law enforcement they are taught to get there, contain the scene and wait for SWAT.”

Unfortunately, as many learned from watching the events unfold via national television that day, waiting is not always the best tactic.

“We found out then that waiting for SWAT is waiting too long,” Mascari said. He pointed out that here in Demopolis waiting could take longer than other, larger areas, because Demopolis does not have a SWAT team.

“Some of the State Trooper instructors at Selma could respond, and Birmingham could have some in the air and here in a fairly short time,” Mascari said. But no team could arrive immediately, as would be needed.

So the responsibility falls to the patrol officers – the ones who are first on the scene, but who most often deal with domestic violence or property crimes.

“After Columbine members of the NTLA, a national SWAT organization, got together and wrote a series of tactics that are simple but effective and taught patrol level officers how to respond to such a situation – that’s what this class is,” Mascari said.

The officers present were divided into groups of four and taken through the school, showing them the nuances of clearing areas and assessing situations. Though the training took place in an empty school, blanks were used to simulate real gunfire and tape recordings of screaming and gunfire and yelling were played in the background.

“We are going to make this as real as we can without the students and bad guys running around,” Mascari told the officers.

The scene will become even more real for these officers next year, as the school participates in a similar drill, but one where students, teachers and other personnel are present.

“We will first give a power point presentation to teachers during an inservice day shortly before school starts and talk to them about the role they play and what do to in such a case,” Hoven said. “Then we will have an actual lockdown one day during the school year. No one will know when it’s going to happen except the principal (Clarence Jackson). We’ll just come in and lock the school down.”

The reason for the secrecy is so that students and teachers act as close to natural as possible helping officers and administrators to see first-hand the chaos and fear created during such a situation. However, no one will be in any harm during the exercise.

“We just want to prepare ourselves for what we hope will never happen,” Mascari said. “If it does, we want to be ready.”