Gunfire in empty Pontiac school is police training

By Bill Laitner

Detroit Free Press

PONTIAC (AP) -- The shattering sound of gunfire echoed through a Pontiac school and suddenly two dozen people were screaming for help from a hallway floor.

But six police officers -- guns drawn, riot helmets tight over chins -- stepped past the prone figures, just as they'd been trained to do, shouting, "Where is he?" as they moved in crouches around a corner, then to a schoolroom door.

On a silent signal, some stepped abruptly into the room and fired paint-filled bullets at crouched figures as others spun to guard their backs.

When the shooting stopped, instructor Bob LeCouffe of the Southfield Police was blunt: "On that room entry, when you see that bad guy, don't be getting off just two or three rounds -- barrage him with lead."

For the last year, inside a vacant junior high school in Pontiac, police from across Oakland County have been training for a horror they hope never to see: gunmen shooting up crowds in a shopping mall, school or office building, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Since June, more than 900 officers from across Oakland County trained at the school, and 100 more are to do so this month, organizers said. The scenarios, which start with recorded gunfire broadcast through speakers, simulate what officers would face if one or more armed individuals invaded to unleash mayhem, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

"We hope and pray it never happens in Oakland County -- but having said that, we have to prepare for it, and ask ourselves: How do we reduce the damage to life and property?" Bouchard said.

Similar training is planned this year in Wayne and Macomb counties.

Security experts recommend new tactics that are markedly different from the way police used to respond.

The 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado, where 12 students and a teacher died, taught police that you can't just wait outside for specialty units to respond and try to negotiate, Bouchard said. Rather, it's up to regular police officers to act immediately.

"We've seen through these incidents that the gunmen don't stop shooting until they're caught, or shot, or see their capture is imminent, and then a lot of them take their own lives," he said.

Explained Warren police Sgt. Brendan Brosnan, who coordinates emergency services and active-shooter training: "Now we know -- even if there's just one officer available to go into that building, he should go in and shrink that problem down or even corner the shooter" to minimize the carnage.

Oakland County deputies updated their training six years ago, inside an abandoned Home Depot, but several years ago, Bouchard said he realized that in a county with dozens of police departments, "We all needed to be on the same page because if something like this happens, odds are you're going to have multiple departments responding."

The new tactics put more responsibility on the shoulders of regular police officers, but they've taken to it enthusiastically, said Troy police Chief Gary Mayer, chairman of OAKTAC -- the Oakland County Tactical Consortium -- which organized the training. Mayer thanked members for letting OAKTAC use the vacant junior high.

"We couldn't have done this without that school," Mayer said.

Using federal grants, OAKTAC obtained trailers loaded with riot gear and hidden across Oakland County, trained 50 local officers as certified instructors, and bought kits to convert officers' guns so they can fire training rounds with paint-filled tips, said Lt. Larry Perry of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office. The fake rounds look, sound and almost feel like the real thing.

"They hurt -- it feels like a bee sting -- so that's why everybody wears the protective gear," said Troy Police Officer Craig Fitzpatrick, in charge of sound effects that rattled the Pontiac school's windows with simulated weapons fire.

"The paint lets you see where you hit the target, so you know how the stress of a situation can affect your aim," said Oak Park Police Officer Rob Wickham, a training instructor.

Sterling Heights, using a vacant Utica Public Schools building, will have 48 officers retrained in the new tactics by mid-January and the entire department by midyear, said Police Lt. Luke Riley.

"There is a push to make this countywide," said Chief James Berlin of Roseville, where local police got students at the high school involved in one training session that had parents and other bystanders crying, "but thanking us" when it was over.

Detroit and Livonia police are among the Wayne County departments with updated training, said Livonia Sgt. Dan Danaher, who is Livonia's police training coordinator and operates www.tacticalencounters.com, which has overseen training for 135 departments statewide.

Watching recent training at the Pontiac site, administrators from the Farmington Public Schools strapped on protective helmets, shoved hands in their pockets and winced at the sound of gunfire booming down hallways. Afterward, though, they smiled.

"Seeing this, it makes me feel a lot more secure," said Allyson Robinson, assistant principal of Harrison High School.

Added Moussa Hamka, assistant principal at North Farmington High School, "It's reassuring to know that they're getting this training that, God forbid, this should ever happen in our schools."

Published: Tue, Jan 14, 2014

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