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How would York County law enforcement handle an active-shooter situation?

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD

As American flags all around York County flapped at half staff out of respect for the 14 people killed a day before by a pair of shooters in San Bernardino, California, local law enforcement authorities said Thursday the possibility that such a tragedy could occur here is never far from their minds.

Springettsbury Township Police Chief Dan Stump said his department is continually working to make sure the response to an active shooter is as fast and efficient as is possible.

Springettsbury Township Police Chief Dan Stump

"Unfortunately, because of the frequency (of mass shootings in the United States,) law enforcement as a whole has been preparing for it," he said.

Stump was a lieutenant in October 2013 when his predecessor as chief, Tom Hyers, ran one of the largest active shooter drills in the country at Central York High School. Stump said the drill went well, teaching them what they needed to keep working on: communication between the various law-enforcement agencies, fire departments, medical services, the 911 center and the other various government agencies that would play a role in that kind of situation.

Law enforcement personnel search Central York High School during the Panther Active Intruder Drill Friday, Oct 11, 2013. Law enforcement, emergency services personnel from all over York County and federal government sources participated in the mock school shooting scenario to develop a standardized response. (Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

He said later drills, such as another active-shooter drill put on about a year later at Spring Grove Area High School by Northern York County Regional Police, have taught them more about how to communicate as effectively as possible, and about what resources everyone has, and how they can best be deployed.

"We’ve taken great measures to be prepared," he said.

Stump wears a couple of different hats in York County law enforcement. In addition to his role as municipal police chief, he also commands the York County Quick Response Team — QRT — a tactical unit made up of officers from a wide range of different departments that's called in to deal with high-risk or volatile situations. He said the squad, which is made up of 25 to 30 tactically trained officers, 12 negotiators, and several tactical medics and tech-support personnel, would play a major role in any ongoing or active-shooter situation.

"We are the 911 of police," Stump said of the QRT team. When the scope or seriousness of a situation is "greater and more dangerous than (local police departments) have protection for, that's where we come in."

QRT would support the local departments with their extra training and resources. The team has access to more weapons and vehicles that might be more suited to combating a heavily armed shooter, Stump said.

Officers hold mock guns outside Central York High School during the Panther Active Intruder Drill Friday, Oct 11, 2013. Law enforcement, emergency services personnel from all over York County and federal government sources participated in the mock school shooting scenario to develop a standardized response. (Bill Kalina photo bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

But they wouldn't be the first people on the scene dealing with the shooter — that'd most likely be an everyday patrol officer.

"The first people who are gonna be there are the patrol officers," agreed York City Police Chief Wes Kahley.

He said the way officers are trained to deal with active-shooter situations has changed over the years. The old way — how cops were generally taught to handle such situations in the pre-Columbine era — was a strategy of containment. If a shooter was inside a building, they were supposed to surround it and wait for a negotiator to show up to try to talk the perpetrator down.

But now, officers are taught to immediately begin figuring out how best to enter the building and "neutralize the shooter," he said. That's because police have come to realize there is no deeper goal for these kinds of shooters, he said  — it's not like someone police might pin down in a bank, where they're trying to steal money, for example.

"That person wants to escape — you can rationalize with that person," Kahley said of the hypothetical robber.

It's different for someone whose sole intent appears to be to inflict as much damage as possible, the chief said.

Emergency lights reflect in the windows of a school bus outside Central York High School during the Panther Active Intruder Drill Friday, Oct 11, 2013. The buses were used to evacuate students during the event. Law enforcement, emergency services personnel from all over York County and federal government sources participated in the mock school shooting scenario to develop a standardized response. (Bill Kalina photo bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

"That person’s not there to negotiate," he said.

San Bernardino: This kind of mass shooting occurred Wednesday in San Bernardino, California, when a heavily armed man and woman opened fire on a holiday banquet for his co-workers, killing 14 people and seriously wounding 21 others in a precision assault, authorities said. Hours later, they died in a shootout with police.

Authorities identified one dead suspect as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and the other as Tashfeen Malik, 27, his wife or fiancee.

In York County, the sheriff's office is the law-enforcement body that provides security for county buildings, according to York County Sheriff Richard Keuerleber. That means deputies guard buildings including the county's judicial center, the county administrative building and the county's human resources center, a similar building to the place in San Bernardino where Wednesday's shooting took place.

On one recent Saturday, the sheriff's office held an active-shooter drill in the judicial center; this isn't the first time they've done that, Keuerleber said.

"We’ve been proactive with this since the naval shooting," he said, referring to the September 2013 attack on a Washington, D.C., naval yard in which a gunman killed 12 people. "My men and women are trained for these situations."

York Hospital: Another York County establishment that has to remain vigilant about the possibility of active-shooter situations is York Hospital. The hospital has never had to deal with such an incident occurring inside the medical facility, but they have various levels of protocol for dealing with potentially dangerous situations, and they have to use them from time to time, according to Bruce Veseth, the hospital's head of safety and security.

The hospital employs security guards armed with Tasers, pepper spray and handcuffs, Veseth said. They would be the first ones reacting to an active shooter situation; their job would be to try to isolate the shooter in one part of the hospital and get everyone else out, he said. Police then arriving on the scene would be the ones who would go in and engage the shooter.

There's a couple levels of lockdown at the hospital. The lowest one involves just locking down the emergency room, which Veseth said is the highest-risk area. It's done usually when a shooting victim has shown up at the hospital, partly for safety purposes — to make sure whoever shot the victim doesn't come to try to finish the job — but also to stop the emergency room from being overwhelmed by a crowd of concerned friends and family.

Anyone who comes to the emergency room in need of medical care when it's locked down still is allowed in, but no visitors can come into that part of the building, he said. He said this happens 40 to 50 times per year.

But to deal with an active-shooter situation, there's a more all-encompassing, full-lockdown safety measure.

"We hit a button and all doors go into what we call 'card access,'" Veseth said. That means only hospital officials with key cards can open doors. Everyone shelters in place until the security guards or police evacuate them, or until the lockdown ends, he said.

The full lockdown has been put into effect a few times in the decade since the hospital implemented the procedure, he said. One time, a man called the hospital to say he was going to come get his girlfriend out of the hospital's mental-health wing no matter what, and that he had a gun. The hospital was in full lockdown mode for about 35 minutes until local police found that the man was still at home and was not coming to the hospital.

The hospital has also done active shooter training, and it pays off-duty York City police officers to keep an eye on the emergency room at night, said Veseth, a former York City police captain.

In reality, Veseth said, if an armed person shows up at the hospital hellbent on causing death and destruction, it's hard to prevent them from committing some sort of horrible act. What the security team's job is in that situation is to make sure the scope of the damage done is as small as possible.

"What you can try to do is mitigate the circumstances," he said.

Stump, the Springettsbury Township Police chief, said much the same, adding that it's hard to protect everywhere against such a tragedy, because it could happen anywhere.

"We can’t say anyone’s exempt from being a target," he said. "That’s the scary part."

"You just can’t let your guard down."

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.