Police & Fire

Maine police chiefs say they wouldn’t wait to send an officer into a school during a shooting

By Kathleen O’Brien, Bangor Daily News Staff

If even a lone officer is on the scene of a school where there’s an active shooter inside harming students, that officer is going inside.

That was the consensus among the chiefs of four police departments of different sizes in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, a week after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Police officers’ delay in confronting the shooter — who was inside the school for more than an hour before police killed him — has quickly become the focus of reviews into what went wrong in responding to the massacre, the deadliest at a school in nearly a decade. Police delayed their confrontation with the gunman even as parents and students inside the school begged for them to act.

“If even only one officer is there and shots are fired inside, you go in,” Holden police Chief Chris Greeley said. “Time is of the essence when you’re dealing with an innocent, vulnerable population.” 

Although the four police chiefs agreed on that facet of responding to an active shooter, their departments varied widely in the amount of active shooter training officers have received. 

Greeley said the 10 officers in his department have not “collectively undergone active shooter training.” 

“It’s badly needed, and when we’re able to, we want to send people to training, whether it’s in regard to active shooters or other things,” he said. 

Should active shooter training become available locally, Greeley said he would send “at the very least one or two officers” as long as it’s not too far away and within the department’s budget. 

It can be difficult for smaller police departments to send officers to training, especially when they have vacant positions, because other officers need to fill the absent officers’ shifts. That challenge can be further complicated when officers are out with COVID-19 for days on end. 

Greeley’s officers, however, are required to undergo annual firearms qualifications and training to review how to deal with a range of situations they may face, such as using a fire extinguisher, dealing with hazardous materials or working with an area’s homeless population.

Holden officers do participate in annual lockdown drills at the two schools in town, Greeley said. Police walk through the buildings during those drills and check if doors are locked, shades are drawn and children are out of view and quiet, he said. 

“It’s a great opportunity not only for my officers to take a walk through the school but for the students and teachers to see this could be a real thing,” Greeley said. “We need to take these procedures and precautions seriously.” 

In Lincoln, police Chief JD Sparks said two of his eight officers have undergone active shooter training and are qualified to train others. His officers also received training last week on how to use their firearms in a variety of settings because “no two scenarios are the same.” 

“The only common threat in active shooter situations is there’s an active shooter,” Sparks said. 

On May 27, his department also had to deal with a threat at one of the town’s schools.

Meanwhile, Milo police Chief Nicholas Clukey said his three full-time officers, one part-time officer and 10 reserve officers participated in a county-wide active shooter training about 10 years ago. 

The larger problem Milo police officers face is a staffing shortage, Clukey said, as it leads to long gaps between when officers can respond to a scene. 

“We’re so shorthanded, four days out of the week, I’d be the responding officer,” Clukey said. “It’ll be me by myself for 10 or 15 minutes. Parents are going to show up with guns before my officers get there, and that’s just the reality of the situation.” 

Clukey said the lack of personnel and training worries him. But “I’ve lived with it for so long and it’s just what we are,” he said. Without more funding, it’s unlikely to change.

A Milo school on May 27 also faced a threat, and classes were called off for the day.

Brewer police Chief Jason Moffitt said his 23 officers have undergone active shooter training as part of the department’s 18-month training plan, though he declined to say precisely what the training entails. 

Brewer police officers are also given a tour of Brewer’s two schools when they’re hired, Moffitt said, so they learn the buildings’ layout should they need to respond to an emergency there. 

Brewer schools also have school resource officers, which Moffitt said can serve as deterrents against school shootings. 

“Most of these guys are cowards, and they’re looking for soft targets,” he said. “If they know they’re going to have to get through an armed individual, they’re going to pick someplace else.” 

Holden, Lincoln and Milo schools don’t have school resource officers, though police chiefs from each town said they believe adding one would be valuable. 

The four police chiefs also agreed it’s crucial for anyone who sees something strange or worrisome to notify school leaders or police immediately so they can investigate. 

“If a school is concerned about something, it’s helpful for them to share that with us so we can look into it,” Greeley said. “We would rather be informed and have it be nothing than not be informed and have it end up being something terrible.”

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