Alaska police officers get active shooter training from pros

The pistols were painted blue and loaded with blanks or paintballs and the hostage's cries for help weren't real. This week, police officers from around Alaska are training in an empty office building in southwest Anchorage, acting out scenarios involving active shooters.

Twenty-three officers from police departments in Unalaska, Kenai and Nome, among others, took part in the five-day training program.

The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University brought the program north at no cost to the Alaska police departments. ALERRT is funded through the university, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Department of Justice.

The FBI’s SWAT team is also participating in and helping with the training.

According to the instructors, ALERRT is quickly becoming the industry standard for training on police responses to shootings in progress. More than 60,000 police officers nationwide have gone through the training.

“Everyone is going to be on the same sheet of music,” said Glenn Gold, ALERRT instructor and retired Houston, Texas, police officer. “These are different situations. We can’t wait.”

Groups of men filling the roles of officers, bystanders and criminals showed off two training scenarios on Wednesday afternoon in an empty building at what was once Kulis Air National Guard Base.

The first scenario was a school shooting. Officers wearing protective masks searched the downstairs hallway of the building, breaching one room after a single gunshot rang out.

Children -- as played by grown men -- ran out of a room farther down the hallway and headed toward the officers. It was the responding officers’ job to recognize potential culprits, and they identified a man with a firearm on his waist and commanded him to surrender.

Second, officers handled a mock hostage situation. Before they breached a room and opened fire on two kidnappers, the two groups yelled back and forth at each other.

After both scenarios, trainers and trainees discussed what went right and what went wrong. The scenarios were recorded and participating officers will use what they've learned and pass the training along to others in their departments.

ALERRT instructor Brian White commended the officers after the hostage scenario for recognizing the situation had morphed into something that required de-escalation rather than immediate action.

Real incidents that have played out in the Lower 48 in recent years have fueled a national discussion about police training, including the use of force over conflict resolution tactics.

Anchorage Police Department patrol officer and SWAT team member Frank Stanfield said local officers work to balance de-escalation with immediate actions to keep the public safe.

Stanfield has been involved in countless situations involving barricaded suspects during his more than 17 years with the force. The vast majority of SWAT incidents involve people who hole themselves up in an apartment or home and refuse to come out, he said.

“There are times when de-escalation is beneficial, but there are also people who quickly escalate situations themselves,” Stanfield said.

APD communications director Jennifer Castro said the police department’s in-house active shooter training includes significant de-escalation components.

A hostage negotiation team consisting of up to 30 officers meets monthly to train, and twice a year a crisis intervention team takes recertification courses, Castro said.

Ketchikan Police Department patrol officer Ryan Pritz has been working in the Southeast Alaska community for about five years. He said his department has acted out a large-scale active shooter scenario at the local college with medics and the fire department.

He’s never been called out to handle a real ongoing shooting, Pritz said, but he contends that such a situation is possible anywhere, even in the small island town of about 8,300.

“If there’s ever an active shooter we won’t be focusing on talking the person down. We’ll need to go in,” Pritz said. “It’s possible, and we need to be prepared even when we get complacent.”

Gold said when he started as a police officer all he carried was a radio and a gun. Technology has changed the equipment, he said, but police discretion remains.

“And the first responding officer isn’t likely to be in full gear,” he said. “Our society’s changing. We’re going to have shootings. We need to know how to respond to them because they’re going to happen.”

Originally posted March 25, 2015 by Alaska Dispatch News