Central Illinois police train for dangerous scenarios

May 15, 2011 1:09:28 PM PDT
There's only about one kind of call that scares a police officer more than a shooting at a shopping mall.

"Our nightmare scenario would be a school shooting, followed by a shooting at the mall," said Champaign police Sgt. Bob Rea, commander of the department's SWAT team.

That's why police train and train and then train some more to deal with the kind of situation they encountered recently at Market Place Shopping Center in north Champaign.

At 4:36 p.m. May 1, given barely more information than "man with a gun" to go on, Champaign police headed to the mall parking lot looking for a purple sport utility vehicle from which the man had emerged.

As they looked inside the empty vehicle, they heard gunshots. Because the shooting was happening very near the SUV they were checking out, police heard the shots, saw the shooter and reacted instantly -- all within a span of 19 seconds, according to Police Chief R.T. Finney.

The result was that the shooter, who was clearly targeting one man, was shot by police when he refused to stop shooting the man he was after. Both men survived the shooting, and no one else was harmed.

"I think absolutely their training kicked in," Champaign police Sgt. Jim Clark said of his colleagues. "Any time we have something high stress, we revert back to our training. That's why we do training a lot. You don't have time to think a lot."

A police officer for 24 years, Clark is the department's training coordinator. Once a year, he organizes a major simulated emergency in a public place so officers can practice how to respond.

Market Place was that location about three years ago, he said. That eight-hour session while the mall was closed involved an armed robbery that went bad, resulting in mall officers being injured and 30 to 40 hostages. It was intended as training for the SWAT team and hostage negotiators. But much like the real thing, the situation was resolved by patrol officers who came in and shot the bad guy. Planners then reset the scenario and started the exercise over.

About four times a year, Clark said, there are other smaller scenarios in other public places. Schools and businesses often are willing to let police train in their buildings, or the officers might use a house intended for demolition.

"We just did one at the end of March at the High School of St. Thomas More. We had multiple suspects and lots of hostages in two parts of the school. Our SWAT team, the METRO team, the bomb squad, about 60 officers were involved in that scenario to practice and coordinate a simultaneous attack at different parts of the building," Clark said. "It went very well. We do these so we can learn."

Rea does even more intensive training with the SWAT team that he's been a member of for 15 of his 16 years on the department. The 18-member team trains 10 hours a month at a minimum. Once a year, the team devotes a full work week -- eight to 10 hours a day for five days -- to a review of everything they are supposed to know.

Rea likes to use sports analogies.

"We do a lot of drills, then we scrimmage, or have a scenario, for the real game that we don't always get to play," he said. "When an athlete is in the middle of a play, he is reacting to what someone else is doing in a split second.

"When faced with a split-second decision, you are able to fall back on that training because you've physically done it and role played it over and over in your mind."

Since April 20, 1999, when two students opened fire at a Columbine, Colo., high school killing 13 and wounding 23 before killing themselves, police training is totally different.

"(Columbine) was the watershed for all police departments in the country. Prior to that, the SWAT team would arrive, sit outside, and wait for the bad guy to give us his terms," said Aaron Landers, a University of Illinois police officer who took it upon himself to start an "active shooter" training program for UI police after Columbine.

Landers had been a UI officer not quite two years when Columbine happened. It scared him.

"My sister lived in Littleton, Colo., and her kids were in the school system there. It touched home with me, and I approached the chief then and said I wanted to put something together. We had our program up and running faster than most departments in the country. Since then, we've done about one active shooter training a year," Landers said.

The police response to an active shooter, Landers and Rea said, is to go right to the threat and eliminate it.

"We're normally training more for a school or an event where there are a lot of targets for a bad guy to show up and try to shoot as many people as possible," Landers said.

Landers noted that the Feb. 14, 2008, shootings of 27 people at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, six of them fatal, could easily have been at the UI: The shooter, Steven Kazmierczak, was a UI student.

UI police have trained at University Laboratory High School in Urbana a couple of times because "it gives us all the elements we need to train -- stairwells, elevators, a bizarre fourth floor with a lot of different tactical problems."

Football and basketball games, libraries and dormitories are high on their fear lists because of the large number of people in small areas.

Before Columbine, the concept of a shooter trying to kill as many people as possible without regard to who they were "was not a phenomenon we saw all that often," he said.

Unfortunately, it has been since then, he said.

And while the recent incident didn't exactly fit that because the shooter was apparently looking for the man he shot, Clark said it made little difference to police.

"Our response is the same: Secure the scene, make sure the patrons are safe, search the mall for suspects and injured people. That's exactly what they did," he said.

Clark and Market Place General Manager Dennis Robertson both said Champaign police and mall security officers don't actually train together but have good working relationships.

Champaign police are frequently called to the mall, and most know and are friendly with the mall officers. In fact, Robertson said it was Champaign police who alerted the mall officers about the man with the gun before the shooting occurred.

Robertson declined to give specifics about the number of security officers that mall owner General Growth Properties employ, but he said the officers are in the mall any time there are shoppers.

"In general, they do train for a variety of situations that could occur in a mall property such as Market Place," Robertson said. "There is a plan in place for emergency situations that covers a variety of needs at different times.

"We work with retailers on that plan and many of our retailers being national, they have plans that their businesses ask them to put in place. There are multiple layers to provide direction what to do in multiple situations," he said, explaining that could be anything from tornadoes to shooters.

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