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Tucson police officers push quick-thinking in active shooter survival course

Tucson police officers push quick-thinking in active shooter survival course

TPD trains its officers to get in as quickly as they can with or without backup during an active-shooter situation. It’s likely backup could be a few blocks away.

The Tucson Police Department wants to help community members be prepared for active shooter incidents while reminding the public that they’re a possibility here, not a probability.

About 40 people attended a training at TPD’s west-side substation Thursday night to learn what in an active shooter or mass killing situation. The training was announced days after two mass shootings that left 31 people dead in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso. TPD, however, offers the training each quarter and has done them for the last three years. The next course will be in November.

The training is based on the Department of Homeland Security’s “Run, hide, fight” model, which was developed several years ago, according to Sgt. Mallory Denzler. The model continues to be used because it’s easy for people to understand, and in an active shooter incident, a person will “not be thinking in chunks,” but rather microseconds, Denzler said.

TPD offers the training because violent encounters continue to occur and police need time to arrive at the scene. That means people have to survive on their own at first, Denzler said.

“That’s what we’re talking about, make no mistake about it. We are talking about saving your life,” Denzler told Thursday’s group.

“We aren’t going to stop you from getting scared,” Sgt. Allen Smith told the audience during his portion of the training, which centered on the importance on decision making in times of stress and the importance of staying mentally focused.

“Navy SEALs train for years and years and they still get scared. But they’re accustomed to that. They recognize those feelings and work through them.”

The idea is to plan ahead in one-second intervals, Smith said, adding that a misconception of the “Run, hide, fight” model is that it must be done in that order. The idea behind the model, he says, is that a person should pick their best option for a specific situation.

If a person runs, they should do so with the purpose of escaping and avoid long routes if the threat is close. If a person hides, they need to understand the difference between cover and concealment. Brick walls provide cover, but walls inside a building, typically made from drywall, provide concealment, Smith said.

Choosing to fight means doing so to survive while trying to destroy the attacker’s ability to see, think or breath, by targeting vital areas like the head, throat and groin, Smith said.

Those fighting need to consider things like the proximity of the attacker, nearby exits and what’s near that can be used as a weapon. Smith warned, if something is light enough to pick up and throw at an attacker, it’s probably not heavy enough to do much damage.

If people start thinking about the possibility of a violent encounter and start making a plan while they’re safe, they have a much better chance of surviving, Smith said.

When police arrive at an active attacker scene, they’re there to stop the threat and will likely not be very hospitable to bystanders. They listen for stimulus, bypass injured people and move with a purpose, because a rescue can’t occur until the threat is stopped, Smith said.

TPD trains its officers to get in as quickly as they can with or without backup. Because TPD has officers scattered across the city, it’s likely backup could be a few blocks away.

People involved in a mass attack situation can help police by providing 911 with information including the number of suspects, their location, physical description, the type or size of weapons and whether the suspect left a bag or object behind at the scene. With the increasing availability of explosives, that last piece of information can be vital in helping police locate any additional threats, Smith said.

Trusting one’s instincts and following the adage, “if you see something, say something,” are vital to help prevent violent encounters, Smith said.

A person doesn’t have to be an expert in human behavior to know what suspicious behavior looks like, he said.

Smith said the most important weapon a person has in dealing with an active shooter or violent situation is their brain.

“Take every second you have and use it to your advantage,” Smith said. “We’re not supposed to be thinking of this stuff, but we have to.”

In 2018, there were 27 mass attacks across 18 states. During those incidents, 91 people were killed and another 107 injured. Seventy percent occurred at a place of business, 14% in open spaces, 11% in high schools and 4% in places of worship, according to FBI statistics cited in Thursday’s training.

In 89% of the mass attacks in 2018, a firearm was the weapon of choice. The other 11% involved a vehicle, according to the FBI.

The majority of the 2018 gunmen fell into the 25 to 34-year-old age range, but shooters ranged in age from 13 to 64, FBI data shows.

Two-thirds of the attackers in 2018 had a history of mental health symptoms, but Denzler was careful to tell the crowd that most weren’t being treated for their symptoms and having a mental illness does not predispose a person to become a mass killer.

Half of the attackers in 2018 were motivated by a grievance related to a domestic situation, workplace or other personal issue. Nearly all had at least one significant life stressor within the last five years, such as a divorce, death or job loss.

And while nearly all of the attackers had made threatening or concerning communications prior to the incident, in 75% of cases, those communications were not reported, Denzler said during her portion of the training.

“As law enforcement, we want to stop the attack before it happens, but we’re not out there just to arrest people. We’re more concerned about getting that person help,” Denzler said.

But while mass attacks capture headlines and elicit fear and empathy from people in surrounding communities, Denzler stressed to the audience that they’re still rare. In 2017 in the U.S., 51,173 people died in traffic accidents. In Tucson so far this year, 36 people have been killed in a traffic accident, according to Denzler.

Heart disease claims 800,000 lives a year, another 600,000 are lost to cancer and nearly 45,000 people a year commit suicide, Denzler said. He said part of his job it to get people to understand that while mass attacks are terrible and can happen, they aren’t probable causes of death.

“The statistical fact is that you’re more than likely to lose your life to some type of health concern, an accident or self-inflicted harm than you are to lose your life to an active-shooter event,” Denzler said. “We do not want our community to be afraid. Go out and live your lives.”

Denzler referenced the airline industry, talking about how it’s made safety a part of its culture, before showing a clip of US Airways Flight 1549 landing on the Hudson River in 2009. The plane, piloted by captain Chesley Sullenberger, was hit by a bird minutes after taking off, disabling both engines. Without any power and without an airport nearby, Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson and all the passengers on board survived.

A key factor in surviving is thinking through the situation and your way out of the problem, Denzler said.

Another important component is recognizing potential warning signs and changes in behavior in friends, coworkers and acquaintances, and sharing it. Denzler asked the group to think about the people in their lives and what constitutes normal behavior for those people. If those people start displaying signs of depression or other mental changes, reaching out to that person or alerting someone else could be lifesaving.

Potential warning signs include suspicions, delusions, blowing things out of proportion, rage, acts or threats of violence, noncompliance with work policies, bullying, withdrawing or avoiding friends and co-workers, according to Denzler.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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