City looking at equipment, training of police after shootings
Share with others:
Since April 4, when a nightmare scenario unfolded in Stanton Heights, Pittsburgh police have had no choice but to imagine what else they might face in the age of the AK-47.
"What if we had the actor go mobile [in a car or on foot] instead of stay stationary?" asked Officer Dan O'Hara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Local 1, which lost three of its members in the ambush for which Richard Poplawski is charged. "We would have been at an extreme disadvantage. We wouldn't have been able to handle him at a distance."
That's because Pittsburgh has chosen to train and arm its patrol officers for traditional roles such as interacting with the community, making arrests while minimizing use of force, and firing a handgun accurately when needed. Situations that require complex tactics and more firepower have fallen to the SWAT team.
That's going to change.
The Police Bureau announced last week that it will start training patrol officers to use rifles, and will buy 46 high-powered rifles for patrol cars and training. Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the city is looking at providing "active-shooter training," which would prepare patrol officers to hunt down a Columbine-type shooter and rescue the injured.
It hasn't been lost on local officers that the Stanton Heights tragedy happened during the same month as the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, when two students took the lives of 13 others. Some of those deaths happened while patrol officers waited for specialists to arrive.
Columbine made it "apparent that police training did not prepare officers to respond appropriately," said Joe Sullivan, chief inspector in charge of training for the Philadelphia Police Department. Even if a SWAT team comes quickly, he said, a shooter "can kill a lot of children in 15 to 20 minutes."
Pennsylvania's Municipal Police Officers' Education & Training Commission, or MPOETC, which sets annual training requirements for all local police, responded to Columbine in 2001, creating a six-hour course. It taught officers arriving at an ongoing shooting scene to form two four-man teams -- one to hunt the shooter (preferably with rifles), and another to rescue victims -- and to move through a dangerous environment in various formations.
At the time, though, Pittsburgh's bureau was under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, instituted in 1997, meant to address allegations of brutality. Specialized officers and supervisors got the Columbine training, while all got another state-crafted course, titled Equality in Policing the Community.
"The judgment at that time was probably correct," said Officer O'Hara. But did it have a downside? "Had we had that training as opposed to the other training would we have been in a better position [on April 4]? Possibly."
Everyone interviewed agreed that no known training would have saved officers Eric Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II or Stephen J. Mayhle. Stanton Heights "started as a domestic call and ended up as an ambush," noted MPOETC Director of Training Rudy M. Grubesky.
"These guys in Pittsburgh were just gunned down," said police Lt. Jim Glennon, of Lombard, Ill., the lead instructor for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, a police training organization. "I don't know a way you could have stopped that."
Pittsburgh Police Range Master Officer Robert Harrison said the city's philosophy has been influenced by "the fact that we have a 24/7 SWAT team," its 39 members dispersed through the zone stations and able to quickly muster to a scene. That takes some of the burden off of patrol officers.
The rifle training he's designed, though, will teach average officers how "to intervene to prevent further loss of life."
The consent decree still influences training, with the bureau putting officers through as much as 14 hours of training on ethics, cultural diversity and the proper use of force, above and beyond the 12 hours of coursework, plus first aid and shooting testing, demanded by the state. Putting rifle and active shooter training on top of that would mean fewer officers on the street, or higher salary and overtime costs.
It could also put Pittsburgh on the leading edge of policing.
Lt. Glennon's 75-man department conducts monthly shooting scenarios that have officers hitting targets while moving through noisy hallways. Such realistic, frequent training is "incredibly rare," he notes.
His department also equips all squad cars with rifles, and has three SUVs packed with extra ammunition, bulletproof shields and other extras for rapid response to active shooters.
Locally, Penn Hills, Plum and Mt. Lebanon already equip patrol officers with rifles, and, to varying extents, train officers to handle active shooters.
That's a trend, said Lt. John Bennett, of the Charleston, Ill. Police Department, a trainer for 16 years and a columnist for PoliceOne.com.
What's driving it? "The fact that a lot of these shootings involve people with rifles."
What's limiting it? "Money's always a big issue. Right after 911, there was a lot of money available for law enforcement. A lot of that has diminished."
Philadelphia, like Pittsburgh, held off on training and equipping all officers to handle an active shooter because it had limited dollars and a SWAT team.
But a year ago, Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was slain with a high-powered rifle when he tried to stop a bank robbery. That hardened the resolve of new Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who previously headed Washington, D.C.'s, force, to better arm and train his 6,700 officers.
Since January, 444 Philadelphia officers have learned how to handle an active shooter -- toward a goal of putting every officer through the eight-hour course -- and 175 of those have gotten 40 hours of rifle training.
In Pittsburgh, a review of equipment "is going to be part of the critical review process" that the bureau is conducting to understand and learn from the Stanton Heights shootings, said Assistant Chief Regina McDonald. Pittsburgh City Council has created a committee, led by Public Safety Committee Chairman Bruce Kraus, to work with the bureau and union to find and fund equipment and training.
Mr. O'Hara said the bureau might consider upgrading the Level II body armor officers now wear. That type of vest is concealable, but won't stop high-caliber bullets.
Range Master Harrison noted that a shift to the bulkier Level III vest could prove counterproductive if officers decide it's too uncomfortable to wear.
Mr. O'Hara said more bulletproof shields might be a good investment, as could an armored vehicle tailored to saving a downed officer.
So might a secure system for officer-to-officer communications. Today, he said, officers who don't want their movements to be known to anyone with a police scanner use personal cell phones to coordinate arrests or raids.
Whatever solutions emerge, they will cost money. But there's little choice, since the days when officers can wait for SWAT are over, said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board.
"Our patrol officers can have the equivalent elitism" that SWAT has, she said. "They can respond to anything that the street presents them when there isn't time to wait for SWAT to come."
First Published May 3, 2009 12:23 am