August 12, 2022
Police ‘active shooter’ training varies in South Florida. But taking out threat is mission one
By Charles Rabin
Former El Portal Police Chief Dave Magnusson said one of the things that kept him awake at night was the fear of an active shooter at the village’s largest public school, Horace Mann Middle.
With about a dozen full-time cops and a limited budget, his officers had some active shooter training with the much larger Miami-Dade Schools Police Department. But mostly, Magnusson said, his staff prepared for the worst through “table-top” exercises. Those are sit-down discussions, not real-life practice runs.
Budget constraints figured in, too. Some officers weren’t given and couldn’t afford rifles, Magnusson said, which likely would leave them badly outgunned in the event of a firefight.
Still, the mission was made clear to officers: Take out the threat. Don’t wait to act.
“We didn’t have full enough manpower,” said Magnusson, who left El Portal last year. “We had some rifles. But we didn’t have the budget to buy for each person in the department. Still, you have to go in. Sometimes, the book needs to be tossed aside.”
The latest mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have reignited concerns about police response and training across the country. Law enforcement agencies in South Florida, where the state’s worst school shooting happened in Parkland four years ago, all insist they have learned from that tragedy and overhauled policies. Larger departments like Miami-Dade Police and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office now routinely engage in active shooter training that stresses confronting gunmen — something that didn’t happen immediately in Parkland or the latest Texas school massacre.
Active shooter training has also become a priority for many smaller departments — though the size of the budget makes some better equipped for the worst case than others. Resources and training could be the difference between life and death during a mass casualty event, experts say — especially when rapid police response is crucial to saving lives.
While El Portal and some smaller agencies struggle to equip and train officers, police in the wealthy enclave of Key Biscayne don’t have that problem. Key Biscayne Police Chief Frank Sousa says residents demand pro-active policing and high-level protection for their kids and that’s what they get.
The island’s 38 sworn officers do active shooter drills twice a year, often side by side with larger agencies and their cops have all the offensive firepower and protective gear they can muster. His department coordinates training exercises with larger neighbors like Coral Gables and Hialeah. After the Parkland shooting, Key Biscayne also brought in special military trainers and Navy SEALs for three sessions.
Sousa is confident his officers would immediately confront a shooter at any of the village’s schools.
“Our School Resource Officers have relationships with the schools and know all the kids inside and out,” said Sousa. “They’re vetted and trained in crisis intervention.”
The day after the May 24 shooting in Uvalde — where police didn’t enter the classroom for well over an hour after the first shots were fired — Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony spoke publicly about how he’d received over 100 texts from parents worried about sending their kids to school the next day.
The sheriff urged them to do so and outlined some of the changes in his department since Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an assault rifle and took the lives of 17 students and teachers. Another 17 were injured. Cruz, who admitted to the killing, now faces the death penalty or life in prison.
The Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting at the Parkland high school would eventually cost then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel his job. Some officers on the scene also delayed going in and a state-appointed panel determined that the lack of a proper command structure likely contributed to loss of life. It was similar to a conclusion reached a year earlier when under Israel’s command, panic broke out after five people were shot and killed by a lone gunman at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Since then, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has undergone a series of changes in policy that include additional training for officers, the creation of a threat assessment unit and real-time access to live school cameras during emergencies. The policy put in place after Parkland also lists stopping the shooter, rescuing the victims and providing medical assistance as the three top priorities, in order.
Tony said threat assessment teams have since undertaken more than 1,600 investigations that ended with more than 200 arrests. Behavioral therapists have been sent to scenes more than 500 times and in 40 percent of the cases, the sheriff said, subjects followed up with the mental health help. And, Tony said, BSO has spent almost $3 million purchasing rifles that are able to penetrate the latest in body armor.
“We’re seeing copycat approaches for active shooters who are now deciding they are going to outfit themselves with body armor,” he said. “In some cases they’re even coming in with helmets and with the fighting capability of military people.”
That was the case in Buffalo on May 17, when a gunman in full body armor stormed a supermarket and killed 10 people in a large majority black community of upstate New York. Security personnel actually fired at and struck the gunman, but body armor protected him.
Though the firepower and other capabilities of South Florida law enforcement agencies may vary by department, there is uniformity on one critical mission policy: An active shooter must be confronted immediately by whatever personnel is on site.
City of Miami policy for instance, updated in July 2018, five months after the Parkland attack, says the response to an active shooter must “swiftly neutralize the attack and mitigate loss of life.” The “scope” of how that is achieved, the policy says, depends on threat conditions, available resources and the “likelihood of a successful intervention.”
In response to Parkland, the Miami-Dade Police Department tweaked its policy and retrained officers to engage the shooter and try to save lives more quickly. It also created groups of Special Response Teams that are highly trained in emergency and mass casualty events, which rove throughout the county and show up at emergencies within moments, sometimes seconds.
Michael D’Angelo, who had a lengthy police career in South Miami and who now runs the security consulting firm Secure Direction, said active shooter training techniques changed after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Before then, police were trained to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT members to confront the shooter. Parkland led to additional changes, including the beefing up of school police departments and cross-training among agencies.
“The key to the smaller agencies is that they can now all do the work together. You don’t need rifles if the first two officers who arrive — no matter what departments they’re with — use sidearms to try and end an active shooting incident,” said D’Angelo. “In a perfect world, the guy surrenders to police. But even if he doesn’t, the disruption reduces the amount of time people are shot and those who need it can get medical attention.”
But such perfect world rapid response hasn’t necessarily proven to be the case over the years. There is no set standard for how people will react in certain stressful situations and “the fog of war” is certainly applicable when it comes to confronting an active shooter with a high-powered weapon. In Uvalde, police didn’t enter the classroom for 77 minutes, leading experts to believe that the lives of some of the victims who bled to death could have been saved.
Stoneman Douglas High school resource officer Scot Peterson also was fired after Parkland, in large part for not entering the school during the shooting. Other BSO deputies who arrived were also delayed in going in.
Miami-Dade Public Schools, the fourth-largest public school system in the nation, also has one of the largest independent police forces in the county. With statewide funding, the district has almost 500 sworn officers, more than Miami Beach, Hialeah and Miami Gardens.
Its yearly active shooter training is complex and even cumbersome, said Miami Schools Police Chief Edwin Lopez. Live training sessions, like ones planned for this summer, usually take place in empty schools or buildings downtown. In addition to being trained on confronting an active shooter, they’re updated on de-escalation techniques and mental health issues.
Though not every city participates, Lopez said Miami-Dade Schools Police also invite all of the nearly three dozen municipal police departments in the county to take part in its active shooter drills, more than a dozen of which are scheduled for this summer.
“Our officers are trained in single-person response,” said Lopez. “The training goes from the classroom, to physically doing it, to even where vehicles are parked and how we co-ordinate with other agencies and how our tactical teams are used.”
Miami Springs Police Chief Armando Guzman said he would like his 47 sworn officers to all take part in the upcoming public school police sessions. The chief said they all took active shooter training after graduating from the academy. But in the years that followed, they only reacquaint themselves with the exercises “periodically” and mostly in concert with Miami Police, where Guzman spent 31 years before retiring as a major.
The chief said most of his officers have rifles, and those who don’t can buy their own as long as they meet the proper standards.
“We do different types of training all the time. There’s no policy in place to say we do active shooter every six months,” Guzman said. “Unfortunately, because of the size of our department, we’re limited in being able to do it [more often]. But school’s out and we’re going to try to do that [with Miami-Dade Schools Police] this summer.”