Will Your Campus Respond Effectively to a Police Pursuit?

Here are some of the lessons one Los Angeles K-12 campus learned when a police chase involving an armed suspect ended in front of the school.

On June 9, 2014, just over 200 junior high and high school students were taking their finals when an armed individual being pursued by police exited the freeway and stopped his car in front of the campus. The suspect then pulled out an assault rifle and headed west on the street that bisects the school, ultimately barricading himself on the rooftop of a neighboring residence. 

The school perimeter had been locked down as a precaution when the security team learned that the pursuit was taking place on the nearby 170 freeway. The street where the school is located is a major artery through the San Fernando Valley, and the passing of emergency vehicles is a common occurrence. However, the unarmed security team remained on the perimeter, which became a concern when the suspect suddenly stopped and emerged with a firearm. 

Due to a recent traffic accident, the school had employed two retired police officers who were providing armed security services on that day. Upon seeing the gunman, both officers yelled “gun” and told the security team to take cover. A pre-recorded “lockdown” message was then activated on the school phone/PA system to contain any student and faculty movement as the roof where the gunman perched himself provided open access to the campus interior.

As the police were already pursuing the suspect, there were units and air support on scene almost immediately. The Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team was deployed, and the students, employees and arriving parents remained on lockdown for more than two hours until the suspect was taken into custody. Police officers remained outside the classrooms and buildings where students were hiding and ultimately escorted them out of the school in groups to a nearby park when the situation was contained.

The initial aftermath was one of relief as no one on campus was harmed. The administrators gathered and immediately cancelled school the following day so our community as a whole could begin to process both of the recent events.

While the basic response system worked, the school quickly realized that the potential of technology and training were not being maximized. The pre-recorded message did spread the lockdown notification quickly, but there was no way to further communicate with the various groups as a whole, and cell phones ran out of charge after being used to text individual teachers. Parents were notified of events via mass email instead of a more efficient reverse 911 system. Additionally, a group of students that had changed classrooms was not found for more than an hour after the incident was cleared, exposing a significant flaw in the school’s attendance system and search procedures.

Other questions plagued the administration. The suspect had been involved in a police chase where he had pointed the gun at pursuing police officers yet no units were behind him when he initially parked his car and continued down the street. Further, why did the two armed security officers not pull their own weapons while unarmed guards were directly in the suspect’s path?

The school later learned that the air unit had stopped the pursuing police units at the end of the off-ramp, assuming that the suspect was going to fire upon them in an ambush-style attack. The air unit therefore kept watch on the suspect while more units responded to the scene, securing the area. And, while debriefing with the armed security unit, the armed officers felt that pulling semi-automatic handguns while flanked by two unarmed civilians with no nearby cover would have been a losing battle against the suspect’s assault rifle. In fact, the gunman ran past all security personnel without incident in his search for a hiding place.

Since the incident, the school has increased lockdown drills and has shored up both internal and external communication mechanisms. The phone/PA system now has pre-recorded and live voice options, and external speakers have been placed around the campus to ensure that students and employees can hear announcements regardless of location. A reverse 911 system was implemented and is tested several times a year for both teachers and families. 

The debate about armed v. unarmed security officers continues, though the school has not added any armed guards to the team. Research is not on the side of armed security, though it is a question the school evaluates several times per year and specialized training resources have been identified should the administration decide to move in this direction. Lockdown training has become more department- and campus-specific instead of by presentation to large groups. This has been done to encourage individual questions and conversation from faculty and staff. 

The “what ifs” of this situation will likely never be settled but the lessons learned have provided the school with invaluable direction and purpose in lockdown procedures and training.

Dr. Shannon Wasley holds a doctorate in Forensic Psychology and has over 20 years of experience in emergency response. Besides her role as the Director of Health, Safety, and Security at Oakwood School, she is also an adjunct professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in the forensic department teaching threat assessment and mental health law. 

At Campus Safety Conference West being held in Long Beach, Calif., July 31-Aug.1, Wasley will present Active Killer Response for Armed and Unarmed Security: Understanding Roles and Procedures During an Event. Her presentation will provide an in-depth review of this incident and the lessons she and her school learned from it. The presentation will cover the role of unarmed security officers, communication during emergencies, training considerations, social media and news coverage access by students, dismissal procedures and recovery. To register for this event or for Campus Safety Conference Texas (taking place June 12-13) or Campus Safety Conference East (taking place July 13-14 ), visit CampusSafetyConference.com.

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