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How active shooter training for law enforcement compares to the failures in Uvalde

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10 Photos
Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training instructor Troy Dupuy, acting as an active shooter, trades gunfire with Texas DPS Trooper Chuck Pryor (in doorway) during a Simunition training scenario inside an Athens Sr. High School classroom, in Athens, Texas, June 21, 2022. The shooters use handguns that fire soap-based marking cartridges to simulate gunfire.
Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training instructor Troy Dupuy, acting as an active shooter, trades gunfire with Texas DPS Trooper Chuck Pryor (in doorway) during a Simunition training scenario inside an Athens Sr. High School classroom, in Athens, Texas, June 21, 2022. The shooters use handguns that fire soap-based marking cartridges to simulate gunfire. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS) Photo Gallery

ATHENS, Texas — Three officers moved serpentine down a tiled hallway lined with rows of stacked metal lockers — handguns held low, at the ready.

As they turned toward a social studies classroom, one officer pointed a firearm inside the doorway.

“Bang, bang, bang.” Each blare echoed, bouncing off the concrete walls.

“Shots fired. Suspect down. Room 404. Send EMS.”

The sight at Athens High School is an all-too-real scenario for law enforcement, but the guns were simulators, responding officers moved slowly and methodically, and the shooter holed inside the classroom was a veteran cop and instructor.

The Dallas Morning News observed Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) in June at the school about 70 miles southeast of Dallas. ALERRT provides agencies nationwide with research-based active shooter response training and was named the national standard by the FBI. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio police have all adopted the curriculum.

On the first day, the training broke down each component of the proper response: The outside approach and breach, hallway maneuvers, the doorway entrance and what to do in the aftermath. The next day, the officers pushed through the training as one event without breaks.

What they learned was version 7.2 of the training first created in 2002 — each edition informed by the massacre before it. In 1999, the shooting at Columbine High School shifted local police officers, previously trained to wait for tactical teams, into the first line of defense. In 2007, a shooting at Virginia Tech introduced the need to educate civilians how to minimize casualties.

The May 24 slayings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde taught the consequences of what ALERRT’s instructors considered their deadliest mistake: arriving unprepared and without a tool to breach an entrance.

Law enforcement has been widely criticized for the response in Uvalde. Eighty minutes elapsed between the first call to 911 and police confronting the shooter, who fired at least 142 rounds, according to a timeline from Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw.

In that time, 19 children and two teachers were killed. At least 17 others were wounded. It was the deadliest school shooting in Texas history and the second deadliest in the nation after Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Though the full picture of what happened at Robb Elementary remains unclear, information revealed through first-person accounts, surveillance footage and audio recordings show numerous decisions directly contradicted police training.

Uvalde school district officers underwent active shooter training just two months before the massacre with a manual from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state agency that oversees all peace officers.

It’s unclear how the course, which occurred at Uvalde High School, differs from ALERRT. But the manual tells officers “a first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.”

Outside looking in

In a sprawling parking lot, tucked between the high school theater and a detached gym, four officers took cover behind a pickup truck.

The 15 officers were from the Athens Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office. Only one had responded to a mass shooting before — Texas State Trooper Chuck Pryor, who was shot in the face during the 2019 Midland-Odessa massacre. One of the instructors, Troy Dupuy, said his son was in Santa Fe High School when 10 people were fatally shot.

A harmony of “moving,” “covering” and the shuffling of combat boots erupted as two-by-two, officers circled the truck, guns close to their chests, and ran swiftly to the corner of a brick building. The drill continued as the pairs dashed to another wall, then crouched behind a sedan and up to the school building’s front doors.

In Uvalde, two city police officers passed up a fleeting chance to shoot the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, outside Robb Elementary, a senior sheriff’s deputy told The New York Times. The unidentified officers, one armed with an AR-15-style rifle, said they feared hitting children playing outside the school, The Times reported.

Dupuy rattled through options to get inside a locked building: breaking the door’s glass windows to open it from the inside, using a sledgehammer or a crowbar, or if it comes down to it, backing a car into the building.

“If not you, who?” asked his co-instructor, Will Mercado. “If it was your children, would you wait outside for SWAT?”

The officers shook their heads in unison.

In Uvalde, the shooter entered the school through a side door at about 11:28 a.m. It was unlocked. Officers who responded appeared not to struggle getting inside either. Their problems escalated in the hallway.

Hallway approach

In groups of two, three and four, officers maneuvered down the narrow hallway inside the Athens school.

As fast as they could without losing precision, the officers shifted their bodies back and forth toward open classroom doors on both sides — guns raised, but not enough to obstruct their vision.

One officer walked backward to watch for threats. But the instructors reminded them that 98.5% of the time, the shooter acts alone. On the off chance they have a partner, they’re almost always together.

In footage obtained by the Texas Tribune, the Uvalde shooter is seen firing his rifle in an empty hallway, but officers don’t appear until he is already inside adjoined classrooms 111 and 112, which he entered through another door that appeared to be unlocked.

After Pete Arredondo, the police chief of the Uvalde school district, arrived with about 10 other officers, the shooter fired at three officers closest to the classrooms, grazing two as they all bolted to either end of the hallway. Those officers, including Arredondo, never fired a shot, the Tribune reported. Last week, Arredondo was placed on administrative leave. At the Athens training, Mercado said officers are taught to move toward the “driving force,” whether that is gunfire or screaming. Officials said Arredondo believed that the suspect was barricaded inside adjoining classrooms and that there was no longer an active attack.

“It sounds like a hostage rescue situation,” a DPS officer said in the footage at 12:01 p.m., more than 30 minutes after the massacre began.

In training, Mercado told the officers the situation can be fluid.

“The trick in the heat of the moment, when bullets or blanks or whatever, are flying, is recognizing what starts off as an active shooter can turn into a barricade — then back to active,” Mercado said.

It did in Uvalde. About 12:10 p.m., Arredondo asked for a master key to unlock classroom doors, according to audio transcripts reviewed by the Tribune. It was later determined the door was never locked, and the Tribune reported no one was seen trying to open it.

Six minutes after requesting keys, the chief tested them on a different classroom door. Soon after, more gunshots came from inside the classrooms full of students.

Multiple people, including Arredondo, tried talking to the shooter. There was no response.

The best practice, trainers say, is to keep trying to engage the shooter.

“Keep them talking,” Mercado instructed, “because if they’re focused on you, they’re not focused on killing.”

About 12:38 p.m., Arredondo signaled the classrooms could be breached. Officers inserted a key into the door of room 111, and a tactical unit from the Border Patrol stormed in.

Through the door

“Bang, bang, bang,” echoed once again into the hallway in Athens. An officer posed as a suspect, standing among desks and chairs, and theatrically fell to the ground.

Three more officers pushed into the classroom, about 6 to 8 feet from the doorframe, handguns pointed at the target’s center mass.

Once through the doorway, the officers were instructed to move through the classroom at an angle, making it harder for the shooter to strike.

“If you’re just moving toward them head on, you’re nothing but a moving target getting bigger,” Dupuy said.

The Uvalde footage released thus far doesn’t show anything inside room 111, just that multiple officers entered with a “flurry of gunfire,” according to the Tribune.

In fiery testimony June 21 in front of the state Senate, McCraw echoed what the instructors said. He testified the first officers who responded never should have waited for additional equipment or backup to breach.

“You don’t wait for a SWAT team,” McCraw said. “You have one officer, that’s enough.”

It was a different story June 13 at the Duncanville Fieldhouse, where shots were fired as about 250 children in the building for summer camp hid behind locked doors.

It started when 42-year-old Brandon Keith Ned entered the field house through the main lobby doors and spoke with two staff members. He fired a round, prompting calls to police.

He attempted to enter a classroom but was unable to get inside. He shot at the classroom door, but no one was hit. Police shot him inside the field house and he died in the hospital.

Duncanville police carried out ALERRT’s primary goal: “Stop the killing.”

The incident was a stark contrast to what happened in Uvalde. While both involved a lone gunman, there were major differences.

The Duncanville shooter had a handgun. The Uvalde shooter had two AR-15-style rifles, accessories and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Duncanville police attributed officers’ swift action to recent active shooter training. It is unclear what training the department received, however, former Dallas ISD chief of police Craig Miller, also a former Dallas police deputy chief, said their response was “consistent” with ALERRT standards.

In Athens, officers donned gear and used non-lethal training ammunition on the second day of training to simulate the stress of an attack.

Dupuy said officers often experience adrenaline-fueled, spiked heart rates, accompanied by hearing loss and tunnel vision. Training while under simulated active shooter scenarios teaches law enforcement to “pause” and make informed, calculated decisions under duress, Dupuy said.

“To have the courage to enter that school and stop them, it’s easy to say you would have it, but that takes a lot,” Dupuy said. “I truly believe the more training officers get, it’s going to build and instill that courage and confidence to know they can enter that school and deal with that suspect, and hopefully stop it a lot quicker than we’ve seen sometimes.”

In the room

Back inside the Athens classroom, the officers learned what happens after they’ve contained the threat.

“Sir, in the tan pants, does anyone else in the room have weapons?” a trooper yelled as part of the simulation.

“No, sir,” the “student” called back. Two officers approached the suspect; one mimicked restraining him while the other held cover. The third tended to another officer who pretended to be wounded.

The officers drilled first-aid skills using the “law enforcement response model,” which teaches the officers to “stop the dying” and act as both police and paramedics.

Without warning, an instructor called out “tourniquet, right arm, 20 seconds.” A tourniquet is used in emergency medicine to stop blood loss from limbs.

Velcro ripped in unison as the officers snapped the bright-colored tourniquets from their pockets, unfurling the band and sliding it up just below the shoulder. They tightened it and twisted a plastic rod until their palms turned white.

“How tight do we do it?” an instructor cried. “Until the bleeding stops,” the officers called back.

ALERRT teaches officers they are second in a hierarchical list of three priorities after the shooter is contained. Innocent civilians are saved first, and the attacker, if still alive, is treated last.

For most of the wounds they discussed in Athens, victims would bleed out in less than 10 minutes. In Uvalde, where over an hour passed, one teacher made it to the ambulance but didn’t survive. A few children died at the hospital.

‘The children had none’

What went wrong in Uvalde could come down to no one taking command. Arredondo, the school district police chief, said afterward he didn’t believe he was in charge. Yet, as one of the first responding officers, those at the scene looked to him for what to do. And he prevented officers from entering the classrooms, even though children and teachers were still in danger.

Law enforcement officials across the state have agreed the decision not to confront the shooter sooner cost lives.

“The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from (entering rooms) 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children,” McCraw testified before the state Senate.

“The officers have weapons, the children had none,” he said. “The officers had body armor, the children had none. The officers had training, the subject had none.”

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