Whidbey police train to immediately confront shooters

In the event of an active shooter, the first officer on the scene will head straight into danger.

In the event of an active shooter on Whidbey Island, the first law enforcement officer on the scene will immediately head straight into danger, according to local police.

Officials from the Island County Sheriff’s Office and the Oak Harbor Police Department said their departments regularly train to respond to a nightmare scenario of a shooter opening fire in a school, the hospital, churches or other areas where people congregate.

“There is no hesitation. We just go straight in,” Sgt. Chris Garden with the Island County Sheriff’s Office said. “Every minute means more victims.”

Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker agreed.

“Our goal is to divert that person’s attention and get them to focus on us,” he said.

The Uvalde, Texas police chief’s decision to wait more than an hour before going into an elementary school to confront a shooter — who murdered 19 children and two teachers — has sparked national outrage as well as discussions about police responses to such situations.

Such a delay is not something that would happen on Whidbey Island, the officials said, where the policy is clear and officers are well trained.

Dresker explained that prior to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the usual police policy for responding to shooters was “contain and call out” because police expected suspects would barricade themselves or take hostages. Columbine, however, changed that. Police realized that immediate action, although extremely dangerous, can save lives when a shooter’s goal is to kill as many people as quickly as possible.

Since then, the policy of immediate intervention has become nearly universal.

Both men said they don’t think anyone in their departments would delay before going into a building with a shooter inside. Dresker said it’s conceivable that an officer would wait a few seconds if another cop was on his or her way and close by; a team of two or more officers would be more effective in stopping a shooter.

“I would never tell them not to go in,” he added, referring to his officers.

And it’s not just cops who may face danger.

Garden said he worked with chiefs from Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue and the Camano fire department to create the county’s Violent Incidents Joint Operations Protocol that addresses the roles of law enforcement, firefighters, medics and other emergency response personnel in the event of a mass shooting.

Under the protocol, Garden explained, medics and firefighters might accompany police into the site of a shooting before the building is secured. Officers would protect them while they provide medical care to victims. In fact, Oak Harbor Fire Department and Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue have bullet-proof vests available for their crews, he said.

Officers and deputies on the island are well equipped to deal with serious incidents. Not only do they wear bullet-proof vests on duty, but they carry AR-15-style rifles in their cars. Dresker said the rifles are pretty standard in police departments in the nation, although some officers in other departments carry shotguns.

In addition, departments from as far as 30 miles away would also respond.

Garden said law enforcement has learned from past tragedies. In the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, for example, a substitute teacher didn’t have a key to lock the classroom door to keep the shooter out; the murderer killed 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old. On Whidbey, a system was created in which teachers can quickly and easily lock doors by removing a magnet from the door mechanism.

The departments conduct full-scale training together with the other emergency-response agencies twice a year, in addition to regular lockdown drills with the schools and other training. Garden meets regularly with a crisis training team.

Dresker said his department is holding active-shooter instruction with officers for a couple of hours this week to emphasize the essentials.

In addition, the chief said that the new VR training system that the department is getting can also provide valuable training for responding to mass casualty events, though virtual reality isn’t a substitute for training with real people.