‘Eliminate the threat or die trying’: How CT active shooter response has evolved since Columbine

Once considered a relaxed role connecting with a community’s youth, Connecticut school resource officers are now counted on as the first line of defense in the event of a mass shooting.

Brian Foley, an aide to the commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said most Connecticut law enforcement agencies review their active shooter response strategy after a mass shooting occurs somewhere around the country.

After a school resource officer in Parkland, Fla., was accused of hiding in 2018 as 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, departments reexamined their protocol, Foley said.

School resource officers, once considered “officer-friendly” types in low-risk jobs, are now trained to confront a shooter without hesitation, Foley said.

“So there was a shift,” he said. “Eliminate the threat or die trying.”

A former Hartford deputy police chief, Foley went through mass shooter training in 2013 after Sandy Hook and learned how to approach a gunman with a team of four instead of waiting for a SWAT team.

In the wake of the mass shooting last month in Uvalde, Texas, police presence has been increased at schools across Connecticut. In Norwalk, officers are being paid overtime to be stationed at each of the city’s nearly 20 schools. In New Milford, the town was already in the process of hiring more armed security guards to provide further protection in addition to the school resource officers.

Texas law enforcement officials have been criticized for waiting more than an hour before entering a classroom where the gunman killed 19 students and two teachers last month.

Since the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, Connecticut law enforcement has been trained to immediately enter a building when there is an active shooter and people inside.

“I think it’s very fair to say that it is a universal practice in Connecticut,” Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox said. “In the pre-Columbine era, it was at least a passable alternative to set up a perimeter and wait for the SWAT team to arrive.”

At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two gunmen killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, while wounding 21 others before taking their own lives. During that incident, police remained outside for hours while some victims bled to death.

“The thought now of waiting on the perimeter seems barbaric,” Fox said.

Connecticut requires instruction on how to search a building where a crime is in progress as part of its basic training for recruits, according to Karen Boisvert, a police academy administrator. However, the state does not require follow-up active shooter training.

Fox said most departments he knows conduct their own active shooter training. Fox, a former colonel with the Connecticut State Police, said his department regularly conducts drills on how to handle an active shooter.

Enfield prepares its officers to run toward a shooting scene. They have first aid kits and combat gauze, Fox said, and those who are qualified also have rifles in their patrol vehicles.

South Windsor Sgt. Mark Cleverdon said his department conducts mass shooting training every few years. Officers run through drills in a vacant school, practicing how to enter classrooms and declare them “cleared” once they are deemed safe.

They use paintball-style ammunition in their handguns for a realistic effect, Cleverdon said.

“It simulates a real-life situation when we would be engaging a threat,” he said. And “if you get hit with one, it hurts.”

Cleverdon said it is standard practice for Connecticut officers to immediately enter a building if an active shooter is firing at people.

“The standing rule is: If there is an active shooter, or threat of an active shooter, officers should be entering the building upon their arrival,” he said.

Even at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six educators in 2012, “I think, tactically, the standard was still the same,” Cleverdon said.

The first officer arrived at the Newtown school within four minutes of the first 911 call, and within one minute of the officer’s arrival, the shooter killed himself, according to the State’s Attorney’s report.

However, some investigators questioned the response of the first officer who reportedly parked nearly a quarter-mile away to wait for other officers to arrive.

Retired Manchester Sgt. Howard Beeler was one of the first officers to enter Hartford Distributors the morning of the Connecticut mass shooting in 2010.

The suspect, Omar Thornton, looked out the front windows of the Manchester warehouse and took three steps back. Cops were arriving at the company where Thornton had just fatally shot eight co-workers.

Thornton locked himself in an office, where he called 911 and told a state trooper he wished he could have shot more people. After police carefully made their way into the sprawling building, Thornton took his own life.

Surveillance video captured Thornton in the lobby, apparently looking for more victims. He had shot eight people, starting with managers who had confronted him with video evidence that he had apparently stole beer.

He paused near the glass doors at the building’s entrance as the first police cars were pulling up, backed up and fired his way through an interior door that locked behind him. He locked himself in an office, called his mother and then dialed 911, saying, “I wish I could have got more of the people,” according to the transcript obtained by the Associated Press. He also said he wasn’t going to kill anyone else.

Beeler and his team — the first to go into the building — were in the warehouse in another part of the sprawling complex when Thornton died by suicide. They didn’t hear the gunshot, he said. The team had been going through the building checking open offices for the shooter and marking them as safe, with an “X.” Offices that were locked were marked with an “L,” according to police radio transmissions.

Although Beeler was the highest-ranking officer in the group, he depended heavily on the expertise of Officer Stephen Bresciano, a member of the regional SWAT team.

Bresciano, who died in 2020, told him, “We need to go in right away,” Beeler recalled. “I said, ‘OK.’ He was instrumental that day.”

“We did what we did because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m told that because of our quick response, we saved lives.”