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July 25, 2013

History of active shooter incidents led to training

Police evacuate UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic during the March 8, 2012, active shooter incident.

Police evacuate UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic during the March 8, 2012, active shooter incident.

Sgt. Dan Papale said active shooter incidents are not unique to our time or country.

In fact, one of the worst mass killings at a school hardly involved shooting at all. Papale’s history lesson began in 1927, in Bath Township, Mich., where Andrew Keyhoe, apparently upset at local school taxes, began his spree by killing his wife and setting his house on fire. While the town’s fire department and police officers were busy at Keyhoe’s home, he drove to the town’s schoolhouse, which he blew up. When a crowd gathered in the school’s parking lot, he drove his shrapnel-filled car into the crowd and triggered its detonation. All told, there were 44 deaths and 58 injured.

Improvised explosive devices, such as the ones used at the Boston Marathon finish line this year, “will be the future of incidents we see,” Papale said.

SWAT teams were created after Charles Whitman killed 15 people by shooting from a tower in Austin, Texas, in 1966. By 1999, SWAT team tactics were being criticized in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., when local police waited for SWAT personnel to raid the building.

That works in an unchanging hostage situation but not with an active shooter or other “active killers,” Papale said: “What it allowed in Columbine is to let the perpetrators have unlimited access to a supply of helpless victims.”

In 2004, 385 children and adults were killed after Russian forces stormed a school in Beslan that had been taken over by terrorists three days earlier, resulting in the worst active killer incident in history. But a 2007 shooting in a Salt Lake City mall pointed toward one solution, Papale said: training people to take action on the spot. There, Sulejemn Talvolic used two guns to kill five people before an armed off-duty police officer cornered him, preventing him from shooting again until the local SWAT team killed him.

“People in the situation are always going to have an advantage to outside police responding to a situation,” Papale concluded.

He produced a list of 81 school and university shootings that took place between 1966 and 2009 alone, causing 208 deaths. Over that same period, Papale pointed out, there had been no fatalities from school fires.

That’s because “we train for that, and we construct our schools of fireproof material.” He noted that educators untrained to deal with violence may make unwitting mistakes, such as the teacher who gathered students in a glass-walled library at Columbine that made them easy targets for the killers.

—Marty Levine

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