V.I. officers learn to deal with the unthinkable

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ST. THOMAS ­- The sound of gunfire and screams reverberated through the grounds of the former Evelyn E. Marcelli Elementary School on Friday as law enforcement officers rehearsed how they would respond to "active shooter" scenarios similar to those that have killed dozens of people on the mainland since July.

Beginning Tuesday, instructors from the Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education at Louisiana State University taught 72 St. Thomas law enforcement officers and first-responders during a two-day course.

Friday's drills lasted from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and gave officers an opportunity to practice the course's field training techniques. The drills created different scenarios involving an armed intruder in a public place taking hostages and injuring multiple people. Officers portraying bystanders screamed and fled down a stairway in the back of the building as pairs of trainees practiced shooting, disarming and apprehending a gunman.

Instructors fired blank rounds and used a recording of people screaming to simulate the chaos of students in a classroom or shoppers in a mall erupting in panic.

The Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency coordinated the training, which was paid for entirely by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, according to VITEMA's training coordinator Irvin Mason.

The curriculum emphasizes defusing the situation with a minimal loss of life, including teaching officers how to control the situation so that the gunman does not take his own life, according to Mason. However, in some of the drill scenarios, officers rehearsed shooting a gunman who already had opened fire and taken a hostage.

"Once you get an active shooter in a situation, they are going to start killing people," Mason said. "The thing is to go in and take him out to keep him from killing any more people," Mason said.

Friday's training was the second "active shooter" workshop on St. Thomas within the last six months.

The first training, in August, followed the fatal shooting of 12 people and the injury of 70 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater by shooter James Holmes on July 20.

The killing of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 has spurred Mason to begin planning a school-specific training module and to implement training among the territory's teachers, school monitors and security officers.

Mason said his agency began to see a need for this type of training as far back as 2007, when a gunman shot 32 people at Virginia Tech.

However, while each training happened within weeks of a horrific shooting incident on the mainland, Friday's training and the August training were not planned in response to specific mainland incidents, Mason said.

VITEMA planned the Friday drills in November.

This kind of training became a priority for VITEMA and the Police Department after the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting prompted them to want as many officers as possible within the territory to receive the training.

"We don't expect it to happen here, but neither did they, and it did happen," V.I. Police Sgt. Clayton Brown said. "This training will help us in the unlikely, unfortunate event. We will have an idea of what to do in response to that."

VITEMA will continue to facilitate active shooter training each year, according to Mason. Since August, 102 local law enforcement officers have completed the course, he said.

In addition to V.I. Police officers, personnel from the V.I. Fire Service, St. Thomas Rescue, the V.I. Corrections Bureau, the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and local security offices took the course and participated in Friday's scenarios.

During the drills, instructors observed and evaluated participants based on their performance on written tests before and after each training scenario, as well as based on their behavior during the drill, Mason said.

The next step will be teaching V.I. Police officers how to become self-sufficient at training other officers using the curriculum and skill set from the LSU course so that drills and simulated events can be conducted any time throughout the year.

St. Croix law enforcement officers will receive the LSU training at the end of this month, Mason said.

St. Thomas Deputy Chief Dwayne DeGraff watched the drills and referred to the similarity between one of the scenarios and the non-fatal shooting of a high school student in Taft, Cal., on Thursday.

"We have seen twice within the last six months where we have this kind of shooting on the mainland," DeGraff said. "The great thing about this training is it's not geared toward VIPD officers alone. It's geared toward all law enforcement individuals where this may happen."

Six school resource officers participated in Friday's training, according to DeGraff.

Active shooter training is one of a number of enhanced security measures that potentially can prevent the loss of life in a mass or public shooting scenario, DeGraff said. School security also can be enhanced further by better perimeter fencing, the use of metal detectors and tighter restrictions on access to school property, he said.

- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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