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All police officers in eastern Connecticut have been trained to respond to a shooting incident like the rampage in Newtown, but local law enforcement officials say the tragedy "opened everybody's eyes" and will lead to changes in training and tactics.
"I hate to say it's a lesson learned, that sounds awful, but it's a reality, it happened and we have to learn from the reality of the massacre that took place," said Peter Reichard, deputy chief in New London. "No one's expecting a person to bring military-style weapons in an elementary school. It's unimaginable."
The tragedy that left 28 dead is the latest in a long list of mass shootings, dating back to a 1997 public shootout in California, that have changed the discourse in the law enforcement community, Norwich Police Lt. Chris Ferace said.
"When you get an incident of this magnitude, we say let's take a step back and see what we can do to improve," he said. "Unfortunately, law enforcement learns the hard way. Every time there's an incident, there's a hard lesson."
Ferace introduced a version of "active shooter" training for Norwich police in 2007, which was expanded and, with the help of Lt. Dave Burton in Waterford, introduced regionally in 2008. Now, every member of 23 eastern Connecticut departments, members of the Law Enforcement Council of Connecticut, train together throughout the year to become proficient in what Ferace called "Immediate Action Rapid Deployment."
The training includes shooting scenarios in "high-traffic areas" like schools, hospitals, malls and office buildings across the region.
Ferace said one of the first major changes to law enforcement came in 1997, when two heavily armed men robbed a North Hollywood bank. Officers were held at bay for 45 minutes, Ferace said, as the men, armed with high-powered automatic rifles and wearing body armor, tried to make their escape.
Both suspects were killed, and police officers and others were injured in a shootout that ensued.
At the time, Ferace said, police were armed with pistols and shotguns. Only SWAT team members had more powerful weaponry.
"A military caliber assault rifle was taboo prior to that," Ferace said. "In patrol cars, it was too complex of a tool. Now, for the majority of agencies in eastern Connecticut, a patrol rifle is the standard for a shoulder-mounted weapon."
But that doesn't mean they've replaced the shotgun, he said.
"Just because you get a crescent wrench, you don't throw the socket wrench out the window," Ferace said.
In 1999, the shooting at Columbine, a Colorado high school, presented new complexities, he said. There were armed school resource officers on scene, he said, but law enforcement tactics then dictated that officers set up a perimeter around an active shooting scene and wait for backup and SWAT teams. Additional people were killed as a perimeter was set, Ferace said, prompting one of the biggest changes in law enforcement training.
"Had (Columbine) happened now, the same scenario, the school resource officer would have engaged the suspects until he stopped them, or he was stopped," Ferace said.
News reports about the Newtown shooting indicate that Adam Lanza took his own life as law enforcement closed in on Sandy Hook Elementary School. Ferace said responding officers have three choices during such incidents: arrest the suspect, isolate and contain them, or, if fired upon, return fire.
"It's exclusively dictated by his response to our presence," Ferace said. "We have limited choices based on his actions. It's not unlike any other confrontation with a violent individual."
Training for IARD is funded by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant. Officers from the 23 departments, in groups of 24 to 30, train together so "we're all on the same page," he said. That way, officers from Stonington responding to an incident in Putnam have the same tactical knowledge and understanding to use outside of their jurisdiction, Ferace said.
Departments in the region vary in size from small to the 99 sworn officers in Norwich. But the equipment and training all officers have available means teams can engage a shooter before a SWAT team or specialized unit arrives.
"In an incident of this magnitude, it can be over in two minutes," Ferace said. "Very few go 20 minutes, so the first, most accessible responders are patrol officers that are trained in these tactics."
Focus on schools
Each year, police officers go through hours of training, from concepts in a classroom to shooting practice that includes real-life scenarios.
Even before the Newtown tragedy, Ferace said, schools were a major focus of training exercises. A vacant school building is used during some of the trainings, he said, and by coincidence, Ferace was overseeing a lockdown drill at John M. Moriarty Elementary School the morning of the Newtown shootings.
"We've created training programs for the schools in case of a hostile in the school," he said. "We have a very good working relationship with the Norwich school district."
In Waterford, where clusters of malls and shopping centers are spread throughout town, Chief Murray Pendleton said he can "rest assured" officers have been properly trained to respond to an incident.
"I'm sure there's no comparison between southeastern Connecticut and New York City, but in this particular area, we have more than our fair share of high traffic areas, soft targets and logistically challenged businesses," Pendleton said.
The Newtown shooting has brought immediate changes to certain strategies and plans, said Reichard, the New London deputy chief. The Sunday after the shooting, Reichard and other police administrators met with city fire department officials and New London Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Fischer to iron out any "lapses in communication."
Reichard said many officers did not know the layouts of the city's schools but now will have hard copies of floor plans and access to the schools' electronic blueprints via their in-car computers.
"We're making arrangements for officers to take a walk-through of each school so they know first-hand what each school looks like," he said.
Reichard said that firearm training normally held in May and June has been moved up to March. The administration also is working to create even more life-like training situations where officers respond, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, to an "active shooting," Reichard said.
"We want them walking into the unknown, just like a real scenario," he said.
The eastern district's training program is so highly regarded statewide, Ferace said, that he recently was contacted by officers in the Hartford area for advice and training techniques.
"I refer to law enforcement as the one profession where there is no such thing as plagiarism," Ferace said. "If you like something, share it."