Weld law enforcement officers discuss the tolls, tactical and mental, an active shooter situation can have | MyWindsorNow.com

Weld law enforcement officers discuss the tolls, tactical and mental, an active shooter situation can have

Tommy Simmons
tsimmons@greeleytribune.com

Greeley Police talk as they put their gear on and respond to a call Tuesday near the intersection of 13th Street and 7th Avenue in Greeley.

Weld County Sheriff's Deputy Julio Sherman's fiancée doesn't really sleep while he's working late nights and early mornings. It isn't until she hears him enter their bedroom and begin to undo the Velcro of his body armor after his shift in the morning that she knows she can actually fall asleep. It means he made it home.

Her concern is especially poignant in light of Sunday night's mass shooting in Las Vegas. When Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel on concertgoers at a country music festival, he killed 59 people and injured 527 more. Among those hurt were two Las Vegas police officers who responded to the emergency. One officer needed surgery, but both survived.

Nothing of that magnitude has happened in Weld County, but sheriff's deputy Grady Nicholson knows it could. He pointed to the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino as an example.

"(Navy) SEAL Team 6 didn't answer that call, it was a patrol cop," he said. "I go into every single call anticipating fighting for my life. That's the mindset you have to have."

The difficult part, Sherman and Nicholson said, are the emotional and mental extremes officers experience.

"Ninety-nine times out of a 100 it's just talking to somebody," Nicholson said. "You show up to that hot call with all this adrenaline going … now you have to negotiate with somebody."

Recommended Stories For You

Because of the uncertainty involved in police work, training is paramount. Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner said officers in the city train for what they call "active shooter situations" multiple times a year. The tactics are designed to be similar to other departments' strategies, so if officers from multiple agencies respond to a call, they can work together.

One of the more difficult parts of the training, he said, is getting into the correct mindset.

"You have to temporarily pass by wounded, screaming people," Garner said. "The best way you can help is to neutralize the threat. That can literally save lives."

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on Tuesday night released footage from body cameras its officers wore during the incident. During the three-minute video, Garner said, Las Vegas officers appeared to be following the same procedure, although they can also be seen ushering uninjured people to safety.

That training sinks in, Nicholson said.

"(When responding to a call) you pull from experience, you pull from training," he said "Your brain can't differentiate between training and reality."

Even with the training though, Garner said, the emotional and mental toll can be too much. He's had good police officers resign after handling particularly gruesome calls. Because of that, it's department policy for officers who respond to such calls to speak with a police psychologist afterward. There is also a support group of officers who have been through similar situations, Garner said.

"The whole purpose … is to let our people know (they're) not crazy," Garner said. "As upset as they are, it's normal."

Managing the stress does get easier with experience, Nicholson said. During the first tense calls he went on, his hands shook and he had tunnel vision. Now he's more mentally prepared.

But police work, by it's very nature, can be unpredictable and dangerous. Sunday's tragedy is a bitter example of that. Sherman knows it, too.

"I'm making decisions that can destroy my life in a heartbeat," he said. "I have a chance of losing everyone on one decision."

Identifying victims

The process of identifying the 59 people who lost their lives in Sunday’s mass shooting has taken multiple days. Weld County Coroner Carl Blesch said while the process takes time, if a similar tragedy occurred in Weld, his office is equipped to handle a large number of decedents and identify them. He added, though, that the office would probably need to call on the resources of state and local agencies that identify bodies as well. Physically, agencies can be prepared.

“I just don’t know how you prepare in your mind,” he said.

Go back to article