The cops crept down the remarkably realistic school hallway, their ears strained for imitations of gunfire. Avoiding a child-sized doll, they advanced into the classroom where an actor was screaming.
“Shots fired,” said the instructor, urging the officers on what in real life would be gunfire. “What should we do?”
Police officers – many of whom have never fired their guns at a person, let alone been shot at – must answer this question correctly. Whether a dozen agents arrive or just one of them, training dictates that they must act, even at the risk of death. The May school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two adults died as officers hesitated, demonstrates the price of failure.
The State Readiness Training Center in Oriskany, New York, is where the terrors of the future are simulated, studied and perhaps avoided as part of a vast infrastructure for tragedies. Since 2017, tens of millions of dollars have been spent by the United States government on training for mass shootings, and states have spent even more.
While some efforts are aimed at prevention — a new home terror unit within the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services collects information from social services, schools and police departments to identify threats — most happen only after an attack begins.
Across the country, schools teach children to run, hide and fight, and hospitals prepare for entire classes to be served. But as the children return to school this month, memories of the bloody year that have passed make it clear that these efforts alone cannot stem the tide of violence.
The 445-hectare facility, which cost more than $50 million, simulates a terrifying set of scenarios, from terrorist attacks to flash floods. Its greatest glory is the Cityscape, an airplane hangar transformed into a small town, complete with a bar, a school and a shopping mall – all built to be bombed and shot at. There are framed photos on the walls, coffee cups on the tables and, on a teacher’s desk, a VHS copy of Shaquille O’Neal’s film “Kazaam”.
“We’ve taken great care to make it as realistic as possible,” said Jackie Bray, commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, which oversees the training of the state’s police and emergency workers.
“One of the reasons we train, and we train consistently, is that we ask people to do things that really go against their gut,” Bray added.
Whether efforts like these will be enough is hard to say.
There are no national standards for police training, leading to city-to-city and state-to-state variations. Most forces are small and rural, lacking resources or organizational support from city departments. And while the state covers training and even provides housing for New York officers, some under-resourced departments still struggle to get this benefit.
Even the best preparation is not a guarantee of success: A New York Times analysis of 433 actual and attempted mass shootings from 2001 to 2021 showed that nearly 60% ended before the police arrived. Altogether, the data showed that the police subdued the shooters in less than a third of the attacks.
“You see these stories, and they’re terrible, and I hope it’s never something you have to deal with,” said Sergeant Chris Callahan of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, who took an active shooter course in June. “You hope that if that happens – if I’m called upon – I’ll be able to take advantage of this training.”
The dilemma is not new. In a 1947 report, military historian SLA Marshall noted that less than 25% of combat troops found the courage to actually fire their weapons during World War II. Although his methodology proved unscientific, the conclusion persisted as a symbol of the human propensity to hesitate in the face of danger.
Mass shootings create a similar conundrum. When a gunman attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, police waited nearly three hours to enter while the victims bled. Two years later, when a teenage gunman attacked students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people, an armed police officer retreated to safety. In May, the nation watched hundreds of officers in Uvalde stranded for nearly an hour at Robb Elementary School.
When a person encounters a threat, the eyes dilate and the heart rate increases, preparing the body for action. The brain’s response to stimulus is amplified, but the prefrontal cortex is restricted, compromising decision-making and hand-eye coordination.
Specialized military and SWAT teams often seek to recruit people who are naturally cool under pressure. But grassroots officials can do little about biology, said Arne Nieuwenhuys, who studies human performance at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Your ability to deliberately control your response under high stress is simply very limited,” he explained.
For those who come to the Readiness Training Center, learning how their bodies respond to stress is just one of many lessons from two- to five-day courses.
Conceived by Governor George Pataki after the 9/11 attacks, the center opened in 2006 to allow police, firefighters and emergency physicians to train together. Enrollment never reached the 25,000 a year the governor expected; its peak in 2019 was half that. The center was built with a combination of state and federal money and offers free training to all New York City police officers.
In active shooter training, groups of 24 people walked through corridors and empty rooms. They practice responding to domestic incidents and reports of shootings in shopping malls and schools. After feedback from the instructors, they run the exercises again.
In one scenario, police officers must respond to gunfire in a mall. They arrive in eerie silence. Watching for clues, they search each store – the cafe, the military clothing store – before finding and confronting the shooter hidden in the window of a travel agency.
The need for this kind of engagement began after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. The officers did what they were trained to do: cordon off the perimeter. Then they waited for a SWAT team. In the meantime, nearly a dozen students died.
Stallman, the center’s assistant director, has been instructing officers since those early days and remembers “a lot of resistance.”
“It was extremely difficult to convince the officers that they needed to go in there” because for years officers had left these tasks to specialized teams, he said.
“‘I don’t have the vest,'” the officers complained, according to the director. “‘I don’t have the training they have. I don’t have the ranged weapons they have. Now you’re telling me I need to go in and do their job?'”
His concerns were not unfounded: a review of 84 active sniper attacks by the Advanced Police Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University at San Marcos showed that a third of officers who reacted alone were shot.
“Some departments didn’t necessarily change their thinking; some departments were a little ambiguous about whether this officer should wait” for additional officers, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. “In Uvalde’s wake, if there was any ambiguity before, there is no more about the responsibility of the first responding officer.”
In the past, training programs were aimed at vaccinating officers with their own stress – the idea was that an exposed individual could acquire immunity to the fight-or-flight response. But relatively little attention has been paid to evaluating the impact of training on police work in real life.
“We didn’t even collect data on police shootings, let alone analyze whether the training the officer had was critical to success or failure,” said Stephen James, a researcher at Washington State University who studies stress and policing policies.
James instead prefers skills training that incorporates manageable amounts of stress to build confidence. Realistic programs like Oriskany’s can be helpful, he said, if they follow evidence-based curricula.
“What we need to do, instead of trying to get people used to the stress side of the equation, is to reinforce the resource side of the equation,” he explained.
Nieuwenhuys, the New Zealand researcher, began to notice something similar. In a 2010 simulation that evaluated officers’ marksmanship in the face of an assailant who would occasionally shoot back, he found that officers were able to improve their performance in high-anxiety circumstances. Preliminary results suggest the effect could be replicable under more severe circumstances, he adds, but only if officers are properly trained.
Then there is the crucial question of whether any clinical results will be replicable when needed.
Katherine Schweit, former head of the FBI’s active sniper program, believes all training is valuable. But even then, there are no guarantees.
“We all want a simple answer,” Schweit said. “That’s an impossible goal. And the reason it’s impossible is because we’re not machines. We’re human.”
With a wealth of experience honed over 4+ years in journalism, I bring a seasoned voice to the world of news. Currently, I work as a freelance writer and editor, always seeking new opportunities to tell compelling stories in the field of world news.