Training stirs Gardens

Gilroy fire and police personnel are busy at the central command post for the Aug. 23 active shooter exercise at Gilroy Gardens.

On receiving reports of shots fired and several people injured at Gilroy Gardens on Highway 152, every available Gilroy police officer starts to arrive at the scene, followed by firefighters and paramedics. As the watch commanders and battalion chiefs set up their central command post in Parking Lot A, the first wave of officers tactically yet briskly runs into the family amusement park, guns drawn, with “a mission to eliminate the threat.”

This was the scenario at an Aug. 23 “active shooter” training exercise organized by Gilroy police at the west Gilroy theme park. The police radio chatter sounded real: “One suspect down, detaining now…multiple injuries…reports of possible second shooter.”

Officers, using paint pellets as ammo, “shot” a suspect armed with a gun—a stuffed, dressed mannequin—that had been standing over the bodies of “victims” (also stuffed mannequins). Unsure if there were additional shooters in the park, another wave of armed officers entered the “warm zone” to secure the area surrounding the wounded, so helmeted paramedics could follow and safely treat anyone still alive.

Gilroy Police Sgt. Geoff Guerin said that after the victims are stabilized or carried away from immediate danger, police can begin to blanket the park and its surroundings, searching the grid to locate the other suspect or confirm there was only one shooter.

“The majority of these cases are single-shooter,” said Gilroy Police Sgt. Lamonte Toney, adding that officers at the scene have to make sure the threat is over.

This multi-phase, multi-agency response to a mass-shooting incident is spelled out in the Santa Clara County Active Shooter Protocol for law enforcement agencies, said Lamonte, a training officer for Gilroy Police Department and coordinator of the Aug. 23 drill.

Lamonte said the protocol is much different from how law enforcement in the U.S. used to react to active shooter incidents less than 20 years ago, when the first responding officers rarely entered the danger zone before the SWAT team arrived. And that could be a few hours, with victims bleeding out and the suspect or suspects still a threat, Lamonte explained.

“At Sandy Hook, victims died because medical personnel couldn’t get in there fast enough,” Lamonte said, referring to the elementary school shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

Now, police departments commonly train all of their officers—not just SWAT team members—to respond quickly to all aspects of an active shooter incident. They also train to work more closely with fire and emergency medical responders.

At the Aug. 23 exercise, police and fire officers set up a joint command post in the Gilroy Gardens parking lot by backing two SUVs up to each other. The officers stood between the vehicles writing notes on a dry-erase board and studying maps of the park while giving instructions through the radio.  

“It’s important to practice working together, back-to-back like this,” Toney said.

More than 20 Gilroy police officers participated in the Aug. 23 scenario, along with a similar number of firefighters and paramedics from Gilroy Fire and CalFire.

The other half of the Gilroy Police Department conducted a similar active-shooter exercise July 23 at Gilroy High School, Lamonte said. That drill included about 40 student volunteers serving as role players.

The department aims to conduct such drills for all officers every other year, Lamonte said.

No active-shooter incidents have occurred in Gilroy in recent memory, but there’s no guarantee that won’t remain the case. Guerin, a commander of the Aug. 23 scenario, said, “It’s one of those things you think is never going to happen in your community, but you never know.”