Law Enforcement Agencies Prepare for The Unspeakable

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The panel discussion at Virginia Western. Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins is at far right.
The panel discussion at Virginia Western. Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins is at far right.
The panel discussion at Virginia Western. Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins is at far right.

Sandy Hook Elementary…Columbine…Virginia Tech…scenes of unspeakable tragedies over the past decade where mass shootings claimed many innocent young lives. No one wants to believe it could happen here in the Roanoke Valley, but local law enforcement agencies want to be prepared for the worse. With that in mind more than 70 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel recently took part in an active shooter scenario exercise and panel discussion held at Virginia Western Community College.

A tabletop exercise helped put the pieces in place and further defined the responsibilities should such an incident take place. Roanoke City Police would be the first responders if such an event were to take place in the city, calling in other agencies as warranted.

Deputy Chief Tim Jones, also an adjunct instructor at Virginia Western who teaches criminal justice, said the city has held active shooter exercises in the past, but in light of last year’s Sandy Hook tragedy still fresh in people’s minds the recent two day training event took on added weight.

Jones, a 32-year veteran of the Roanoke City Police Department, said training on a regular basis with regional partners is standard procedure, but he noted that the FBI wanted to put together something special after Sandy Hook, “just to filter back to us some of the analysis that had been done [on Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, etc.] A touchup for administrators and policy makers.”

The event was not created as one that would specifically happen on the Virginia Western campus. Participants came from as far away as Giles and Henry County. With construction changing the landscape at VWCC, Jones (a Virginia Western alum) said it was also an opportunity for law enforcement officials to get the new lay of the land there.

The last two hours of the training exercise involved a panel discussion with Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins and others, revolving around an incident-based scenario. “Things…that you don’t want to overlook [as policy makers] at the time when you may be called on to participate,” said Jones, “God forbid you ever have to do that again.” Statistically another Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech will happen again, according to Jones.

Different levels of experiences and skill sets must all be blended together should a mass shooting scenario occur. Fire/EMS was also involved, along with emergency Roanoke City management coordinator Mike Guzo. Jones also pointed out that “contrary to Hollywood” the FBI does not come in to a locality and take over a critical incident event. “They are there…to add expertise if needed, to help the individual jurisdictions.”

That could include help with profiling suspects, data interpretation and technology. “The FBI wants everyone to know they have these resources…and can provide the expertise,” added Jones. “It was good of them to put the exercise on and refresh everyone’s template on what we know to this point.”

Officials involved with the April 16, 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech were also on hand to discuss what they learned on that fateful day. Deputy Chief Kevin Foutz gave part of a lecture that he puts on for incoming freshmen and their parents at Tech. “Virginia Tech was certainly an opportunity for us to look back and improve upon the processes that we had in place,” said Jones.

Roanoke City went over its critical incident plans. Fire/EMS officials were at the same table with police agencies, something Jones said might not have happened 20 years ago. “You have to look at these things holistically now.” Family counseling services have to be considered now and the immediate impact on those that have lost loved ones also.

“Its always good to put a face to a name and know who your point of contact is,” said Jones, who noted that the level of regional cooperation among various law enforcement agencies may currently be better than it ever has been before. “The best I ever remember in my 32 years,” Jones declares.

“Everybody wants to think ‘oh dear God don’t let it happen to us’ – but you cannot dismiss the reality that unfortunately there are evil people in the world,” said Jones. “Bad things are going to happen. You’ve got to keep your people up to speed… so your response is not delayed.”

By Gene Marrano