Crisis exercise in Johnstown school hallways
Police hone skills to find shooter in nightmare case
JOHNSTOWN The dim halls of Johnstown High School echoed with shouted orders and flickered under the beams of tactical flashlights mounted on AR-15s and pump shotguns.
Rick Richardson, affectionately known as Dick Dick by his fellow officers, hefted a 14-pound Kevlar shield and pointed his Glock 9mm around a hall corner like an extension of his arm.
“Tell me what you see,” said Sgt. Marc Porter.
“Two doors on the left. Doors on the right,” he shouted back. “Clear.”
There was enough hardware strapped to the 12-man team to resolve a major “live shooter” situation, but Wednesday they were just training in a building empty for spring break.
“It’s important we all know the school,” Porter said before the exercise. “If we ever get the call, we’ll need to know our way around.”
The crew was made up of Johnstown and Gloversville officers working under the Glove Cities Emergency Response Team; Porter is from Gloversville. Similar teams exist Albany and Schenectady, all designed to handle the worst of law enforcement crises.
Porter said his ERT was begun in 2000 but petered out by 2010. Then last summer it started back up under new department leadership.
“With the school shooting in Connecticut and the live shooter in Herkimer,” he said, “We’re reminded to stay sharp.”
Longtime Johnstown officers Mike Millias and Ryan Wilcox helped each other on with the bullet proof vests.
“These are three times heavier than the stuff we usually wear,” Wilcox said. “It’s all ceramic plates to stop heavier fire.”
“Feel that,” Millias said, lifting a vest by a reinforced handle on the back of the neck.
The gear — vests and weaponry — weigh upwards of 50 pounds. For history buffs, that’s about what a Roman Centurion carried when Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls.
“I’m hot and we haven’t even moved yet,” one fellow said as Porter checked their firearms, making sure they were all empty.
Last month the team ran similar drills in Gloversville schools.
According to high school principal Michael Beatty, who stayed in his office, it’s been five years since one ran in Johnstown. “There have been building changes since then,” he said, “and I suppose there are new officers as well.”
The training was twofold. Officers needed to learn the building in case of a school shooting, brushing up on tactical skills along the way.
“We’re training for when the shooting stops,” Porter said, “Has the suspect shot himself or is he just hiding? We need to find him.”
The team practiced clearing hallways and classrooms in a methodical fashion designed to corner a hiding gunman.
In a large first floor classroom used on the average day for health instruction, groups of three officers practice tactical “L” entries — one man opening the door, another running straight in covering the room and the third hooking to one side or the other for back-up.
With all the students gone on break the rooms were empty and locked.
By the time the ERT could be assembled in a true crisis situation, Porter said the school would be on lockdown. Protocol directs teachers to lock each door and gather their students in the far corner of the room, out of sight.
One officer had a master key, just as he would in an actual emergency situation. Over the course of the drill, a few problems became obvious. The master key worked a little differently on each door, slowing the whole process.
There were also doors connecting many of the classrooms, which made an orderly search more difficult.
“It’s a nightmare,” Porter said, adding that all school layouts have pros and cons.
By the end of the two hour drill, beads of sweat ran from buzzed heads into eyes, then it was on to Knox Junior High for more.
All the practice will help, but if there ever is a Newtown type situation in Johnstown, on-duty officers will be there by the time the ERT arrives.
“The first three officers at the door are going in with whatever they have in their car,” Porter said. “They’ll go to where the shooting is.”