As the media focused on the thousands of students walking out of school Wednesday to protest gun violence and demand gun-control legislation, a longtime officer and police-academy director says a critical element of stopping or limiting mass shootings is finding the right people to become police officers and training them well.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did have armed security when a former student killed 17 people on Feb. 14, but resource officer Scot Peterson did not enter the school when he determined shots were being fired inside.
Many critics branded Peterson a coward for his inaction, but 21-year Illinois police officer Randy Petersen (no relation) says it’s more complicated than that.
“Maybe it’s not a cowardly person but someone who is unsure of themselves, unskilled, haven’t been trained up properly. Anytime you have something like that, we can have this situation where we shoot people that we don’t want shot or we don’t shoot people that need to be shot,” said Petersen, who also directed one of the largest police academies in Texas and is a senior researcher at Right on Crime.
“To go to the point where we have a police officer that is either incompetent in their physical skills, their defensive tactics skills, their shooting, they’re not going to have confidence and a lack of confidence can get you to a point where an officer either fails to act or overreacts,” said Petersen.
Petersen says a special type of demeanor is needed to be an effective police officer.
“We want a blend of these two qualities where a person is not overly excitable, not easily offended, but at the same time very competent and very capable,” said Petersen.
He says finding those qualities ought to be a high priority in the hiring process.
“We can train people to fight. We can train them to be good at sports. We can train them for an event, but we don’t know how they’re going to perform before they actually do it. What we can do is, during hiring and testing, we can have an idea of what we’re looking for an officer to be able to do,” said Petersen.
However, Petersen admits the vast majority of police officers never fire their weapons during their careers, so how can there be any certainty how they’ll perform under pressure?
He says training drills can be very effective.
“You’d be surprised at how realistic your role players [are], if you have good ones. Some of the technologies we have can really re-create the situations you can get in the training academy or in inservice training. You can get a real picture for how someone’s going to respond,” said Petersen.
“You can put them under pressure where the stress levels will give them that adrenaline dump, make them scared, make them nervous, make them physically exhausted, right up to the point to where the real situation is going to be just a little bit different,” said Petersen.
He says the key question is what police departments are willing to do about the officers who can’t do the job well.
“The problem becomes whether or not we’re willing to weed out people who can’t. In a lot of situations I think that we don’t. We don’t weed out the people that we recognize and say, ‘I think this person’s not going to be able to do this,'” said Petersen.
Petersen says the problem is often not with the police departments but with the powerful allies of the officers not measuring up to the job.
“The union can make it difficult in a lot of states to terminate an officer that either has a lot of complaints filed against them or is basically incompetent. A lot of times they can end up getting their jobs back.
“It’s not that police agencies themselves are hesitant to get rid of them. Sometimes they fire them and they come right back on the job,” said Petersen.
While Right on Crime does not endorse any particular legislation to address mass shootings, Petersen says armed school security officers can be a good thing, but only if proven to be capable of handling a crisis of that magnitude.
He also says those officers can be limited in their effectiveness on a large piece of property.
“A police officer that’s on a sprawling campus still may have to run all the way across the campus to get to it, which may only take a matter of a minute or two but that’s a minute or two that we have active shooting going on. By the time the officer gets there, they may be winded. That changes the dynamics of being able to shoot and fight skillfully,” said Petersen.
On the issue allowing teachers to carry guns if they want to, Petersen says it may make a big difference when seconds count.
“Having administrators and/or teachers that are armed would be keeping in line with the doctrine of active shooter training because you’re going to have people with guns on scene faster to intercept that person,” said Peterson.