In his mind's eye, University of Pittsburgh Sgt. Dan Papale recently relived the chaos, stress and deadly danger he and other Pitt officers faced March 8 inside Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic of UPMC, where gunman John Shick remained at large after killing one person and wounding five others.
Sgt. Papale re-experienced the fallen bodies, the blood, the screaming. And he recalled the laser focus on active-shooter training the officers needed to stop Shick before anyone else was harmed.
He relived Shick firing at officers and his returning fire -- three shots from his AR-15 rifle that killed Shick and ended the rampage.
Sgt. Papale recounted the traumatic event in order to write a 2,000-word article to be published in the February edition of The Tactical Edge, the professional journal of the National Tactical Officers Association headquartered in Doylestown, Bucks County. The 30-year-old journal, considered a leading authority in tactical operations information, reaches 35,000 law enforcement officers, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and other countries.
Sgt. Papale's article is a summary of the critical incident inside Western Psych, the actions Pitt police officers took to end it -- which Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has described as "nothing short of heroic" -- and lessons learned for Pitt police and all law enforcement.
Sgt. Papale, 31, said he wanted to write the article to help other officers.
In doing so, he found it also helped him.
"It's a technical journal, but at the same time, there has to be an emotional connection to something like this experience," he said. "I admit I was cautious and avoided writing about it for a while, but once I started writing, I found it just flowed.
"I have a certain emotional investment in it, but actually it was almost therapeutic in a way to write the article because I knew I could use the experience to benefit someone else."
The genesis of his article began when he sent the association an email thanking its instructors "from the bottom of my heart" for the training he and other Pitt officers received in June 2011, which they had to use nine months later.
"Because of the doctrines and tactics we learned in the NTOA course, we were able to successfully intervene, stopping the killer," he wrote the association.
Pitt police's Special Emergency Response Team and patrol officers "were able to fluidly move and engage in a tactical situation," he wrote. "This was a proposition that prior to active shooter training would have been challenging, to say the least."
Mary Heins, editor of The Tactical Edge, which published Sgt. Papale's email as a letter to the editor in the quarterly journal's most recent edition this month, asked him if he would write a critical incident summary, often a feature in the magazine.
Like any police officer, the six-year veteran of the Pitt force has written his share of reports, but this is Sgt. Papale's first foray into having his writing published. However, he initially majored in journalism at Duquesne University before switching to criminal justice.
"You can tell [he had a writing background] because I really didn't have to do a whole lot of editing like I usually have to do," Ms. Heins said.
Sgt. Papale wrote a critical incident summary of what occurred on that rainy March afternoon turned horrific by gunfire.
Pitt Officer Tom Lasky was first to respond to reports of an active gunman in the lobby of Western Psych. He turned left inside the lobby because he heard screams. Seconds later, Sgt. Papale, a team leader and instructor for SERT, entered with six other officers who split into units when he yelled "Give me a T!"
Shick fired upon them. Three returned fire, backing Shick down a hallway, while Sgt. Papale led a team of four in the opposite direction. They spotted Shick in a hallway. "Stop! Police! Don't move!" Sgt. Papale yelled.
Shick responded unintelligibly and got behind a victim he had previously wounded. His hands were hidden. In a second, he rose, a 9 mm handgun in hand, and shot at the officers, hitting one of them, Guy Johnson, in the chest. Officer Johnson's bullet-proof vest deflected the round. Sgt. Papale fired back, hitting Shick in the chest, hip and head.
Shick was dead. The mayhem was over.
For their actions, Sgt. Papale, Officers Lasky and Johnson and seven other Pitt police officers last month received the Sen. John Heinz Law Enforcement Award for 911 Quick Response.
Sgt. Papale credits the quick conclusion of the rampage with his department's foresight immediately after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007 to annually train all Pitt police officers on all campuses in active shooter response.
"The cliche is 'You don't rise to the occasion but default to your level of training,' but I think that saying is very much true," he said.
As for lessons learned, Sgt. Papale wrote in his article that the training of all officers for response to an active shooter cannot be overstated.
"There needs to be training on every level of the department, from the patrol officer up to the command staff," he said. "That way, you can interchange a patrol officer with a SERT guy and everybody is on the same page."
Additionally, he said, communication among all emergency responders is crucial.
"In any kind of law enforcement situation [with multiple departments], communication is always rough and when stress is high, communication is one of the first things to go," he said. "But communications went fairly well for us because we were inside the city and could talk to each other on one channel or another."
Finally, he said, every officer should have a "go bag" -- containing extra ammunition, a medical kit, flashlight, batteries and other equipment -- in the trunk of his patrol car in case he has to respond to such an incident.
The Western Psych shooting is now one of the active-shooter scenarios used by Pitt police instructors, such as Sgt. Papale, in training Pitt officers and those from other departments, such as the Allegheny County police SWAT team last week.
"Western Psych validated in everyone's mind the need and importance of training," Sgt. Papale said. "I'm blessed I work for a department that is very pro-training."
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.