Coming face to face with an armed killer is no time to be tentative.
“Commit to the room,” shouted the State Highway Patrol’s Joel Smith as he watched an Akron patrolman slowly lean through a door at Margaret Park Elementary School to find a pretend killer.
Shots rang out. The suspect was killed and the officer was hit, but it was only practice, as indicated by the pink dye on the wall and their shirts.
It was part of a training session at the long-closed school on Manchester Road involving the patrol and 17 Akron police officers who serve as school resource officers.
The goal was to re-create the tension, noise and confusion an officer faces in a “shoot-don’t shoot” situation.
The patrol’s Sgt. E.E. Rivera promised “it’s going to be chaos” before the event. The hallways were darkened and a boombox was used to produce the most annoying music the police could find, in this case heavy metal. The officers were made to run up steps, down hallways and into rooms with a trainer yelling and coaching them all the way.
“Communicate!” Rivera shouted as two officers practiced climbing a stairway, warning that a gunman might be around the corner. If they don’t tell each other what they see, there can be surprises.
At the top of the stairs, Smith had an officer practice working alone, entering rooms and assessing the situation. Nine law enforcement students from Fortis College in Cuyahoga Falls played the roles of students and shooters.
Before 1999, officers would wait outside school for a special weapons and tactics unit to arrive before going in. After the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, they learned that every moment counts and they must go in right away, no matter how dangerous.
The blue paint on Dan Bickett’s shirt indicated he took a round, but the Akron patrolman and school resource officer at Roswell Kent Middle School was pleased he took out the imaginary gunman.
He said it was like real shoot or don’t shoot situations.
“I’ve been a police officer for 12 years now and so you run into those,” he said. “It’s scary. You don’t want to be in that position. All you can do is do the best you can do and take what you got in front of you and try to make the best decision.”
He praised the scenarios set up by Rivera and the patrol.
“This training is really, really good because you are getting rounds fired back at you, which is realistic,” he said. “You gotta be thinking under pressure. You’re moving while you make those decisions. You’re tired because you are going up the stairs and going through rooms. I think this puts us real close to what we see on the streets.”
Forrest Kappler, another patrolman serving as school resource officer at Litchfield Middle School, said the need is real.
“There’s been school shootings all over the country and not just schools but malls, churches and places of businesses,” he said. “This gives us a great opportunity to train for something that might happen in Akron.”
Kappler said once is not enough.
“All skills are perishable,” he said.
Even a shooting’s aftermath was practiced.
Officers were told to enter a room with four victims: a student with an arm wound, a motionless police officer on the floor, an apparently unharmed student and a suspect with blood coming from his thigh and arm. The officer is given a small bag of medical supplies.
The mission was triage — deciding who to help first.
Ordinarily, the order is: hostages, injured citizens, law enforcement officers and finally suspects. But their training also says the severity of the injuries can change that order. In this case, the suspect ranked first.
“It’s tough to go to the bad guy first because you want to help the hostages first or the other officers,” said Bickett, “but we are trained to help whoever is in the most immediate threat of dying. You go to them and try to save them even if they are the guy who did the damage.”
The practice was witnessed by Akron City Council President Garry Moneypenny and Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer.
“I want to commend the Akron Police Department for their participation in this training,” Moneypenny said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.