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How law enforcement reacts to mass shootings

  • Former Det. Dan Austin: Law enforcement trained to handle situations like this
  • Austin: 'Nobody is really ever prepared to deal with children that are victims'
How law enforcement reacts to mass shootings

'Our hearts are broken today'

'Our hearts are broken today'

Parent: 'It was shocking'

Parents express relief that their daughter is safe after a shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.

Editor's note: Dan Austin is a retired New York police detective and crime scene investigator. The bulk of his work involved homicides, rape cases and shootings. Here, he talks with In Session's Graham Winch about how law enforcement deals with incidents like Friday's school shooting in Connecticut.

Q: How does a law enforcement agency prepare for a mass shooting situation? 

A: Every scenario changes. Each scenario is somewhat different. Some aspects of it may be the same. Some aspects might be totally different. So, they’d do some practice runs. In small police departments in small cities, it’s lot more difficult because it’s really not expected. It’s usually outside the norm. They may practice for it. The hard part is dealing with the different types of victims or the victimology in the case, which would be children. Nobody is really ever prepared to deal with children that are victims.

Q: Would a town the size of Newtown have a SWAT team?

A: They might have a SWAT team. You know, if the individual or the individuals involved in this are holding hostages, they may have a hostage negotiation team. More than likely, if it’s a small town or you know a small area, they might call in a larger county law enforcement team or maybe even state police, bring in their hostage negotiation people and so forth and their sniper unit or SWAT team or whatever they may call it to help them out. Like I said, a small department is adequately equipped for certain things but not adequately equipped for other things. And that’s why they would call in, you know, the surrounding counties, local police departments or even state police.

Q: If reports come in of something massive, (i.e. a mass casualty situation), what do they do? Do they immediately deploy people? 

A: It’s a matter of a short period of time to assess the situation and try to get as much manpower and necessary equipment to a scene like this, even EMS, if you have multiple casualties. You’re going to need a staging area. Notify surrounding hospitals and areas, private conveyors for ambulances, just to move the victims if they can even remove them. If they can’t, well, then unfortunately there’s some kind of negotiation that’s going to have to happen through a hostage negotiator or a team of hostage negotiators or even an emergency service-type SWAT team or sniper team.

Q: I’m sure there’s some type of police hierarchy. When the state police get involved, is there some type of structure in place to make sure somebody takes the helm?

A: Usually what happens is the dispatcher will be supervising in the room for communications. Either he or she will be making thoughtful determinations as to who to notify. As the reports come in, the bigger it gets then the reports would go out even more and more as you would start to notify the commanding control center with the local county police department or even the state police. Then, they might even take it a next step further. They might even notify, in some cases, federal authorities and go right up to the governor's office depending on the scenario.

But there is definitely a chain of command, and like I said, it all starts out with that initial 911 call or report and uniformed officers that respond initially and there’s really little time for error. They have to really assess the situation for what it is when they arrive there and then make the notifications as fast as possible and give enough detailed information that the right equipment can be brought in and the right individuals can be brought in to deal with the situation to try to contain it or to limit it to the scope that it’s already at this point in time. You don’t want to exceed or lose any more life if possible.

Q: Are there difficulties when you get all these different law enforcement agencies involved? Can there be such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen? 

A: Sometimes, yes. But I do know since 9/11-- and this is something I’m familiar with -- a lot of law enforcement agencies throughout the United States have actually trained with each other and we’ve worked closely together. Here in the Tri-State area, I’ve worked with the New Jersey State Police, New York State Police, Connecticut State Police and we’ve actually trained outside of the metropolitan area. We’ve trained in areas like Alabama, Nevada, New Mexico and really what that’s all about is to try to understand other agencies that are outside of your jurisdiction -- their lingo, how they operate -- and really pass it on to others within your jurisdiction so you can work as well together as much as possible because there’s always going to be a glitch.

Nothing will ever operate 100%. That’s an impossibility, although we’d like that, but it will never happen because, you know, there’s just too many formalities and differences and different agencies. But, for the most part, it works, especially if the information is good. You know, like a computer. A computer is only as good as the information that goes in it. You put garbage in, garbage comes out. So, communication is the most important in today’s age with the advent of cell phones and computers and laptops and iPads and cell phone cameras, things of that nature. We can pretty much relay accurate information in a very short period of time, which is very important in keeping casuality counts down and apprehending the individual or individuals who are responsible for the action. 

Q: So the first responders show up and they think that something really bad is going on in a school like this, how do they make the decision to go in or not? 

A: Well, really, it’s protocol. It’s what they're taught, what their standard operating procedure would be and hopefully you have enough witnesses and people who can relay information who may have been in the school who can give you a detailed or accurate account as to how many people are involved, how many suspects are involved. And then if you can just basically contain it, and limit all the casualties and hopefully wind up with a positive outcome, because the big thing is safety. You know, you don’t want to put any more people in danger that have already been in danger. You don’t want to add to the casualty list if you can help it.

Q: In situations like this, is it hard for law enforcement to keep it together, emotionally? 

A: Unfortunately, yes, especially when it’s dealing with children. Whenever you deal with children, women, the elderly...children are probably first and foremost. When you’re dealing with children of anywhere from newborns all the way up to 17-year-old kids, 18-year-old high school kids, even college kids, it's pretty traumatic emotionally. People have children and a lot of these first responders have children. It’s a very difficult, psychologically, emotionally thing to deal with. No matter how many psychiatrists or psychoanalysts are involved, before, during or after, it’s still a very traumatic thing. Children are the real innocent (ones), you know, they have yet to be corrupted by society and especially the younger ones.

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