There have been more mass shootings across the United States in 2019 than there have been days in the year, according to data from the nonprofit research group Gun Violence Archive, making it the first year since 2016 with an average of more than one mass shooting per day.
In the weeks after the El Paso and Midland/Odessa shootings, The Chronicle began reaching out to local law enforcement to see where our community stands in preparation for such an incident, were one to occur within our borders.
“It’s no secret, even up to five years ago, you’d have a mass shooting once a year or maybe once every six months, and it’s progressed now where they’re almost weekly, as scary as that is,” St. Helens Police Department (SHPD) Chief Brian Greenway said. “What goes through my mind when they occur is: are we ready?”
This week is the two-year anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting at Mandalay Bay Hotel on Oct. 1, 2017, an incident during which Greenway served as Incident Commander. He said the subject, “as corny as it sounds” is not far from his thinking every day. He asked the officers that same question when he first arrived in St. Helens, given the frequency of these shootings – are we ready?
At the time, he didn’t think the SHPD was where it needed to be.
“We were good, but we wanted to get to great,” Greenway said.
Greenway said the department has worked on building relationships with surrounding jurisdictions to better mitigate the situation quickly if it does occur, something he said was evident on the day of the July 2 shooting of two men in St. Helens at a local apartment complex.
“We had other jurisdictions outside of St. Helens assisting, so we’re working with our partner agencies and have made a few changes internally to kind of get us to the next level,” Greenway said, adding that many of those were simple changes.
For example, they partnered with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) so SHPD officers could use their local range rather than driving an hour away to qualify with their duty weapons. They mandated SHPD officers tour every school to learn the layouts and made sure
they knew who had the keys in case they had to gain entrance.
Greenway said these partnerships are the biggest area he’s focused on, specifically with local fire departments and medical technicians. He said it was one of the more essential lessons he learned from the Mandalay Bay shooting.
“We need to work together and know the little things, like who is on the fire department, knowing what they’re capable of and knowing what we’re capable of,” Greenway said.
The initial classroom training for that is coming in October, according to Greenway, and they will take it a step further with practical application in November with drills in the community where police and firefighters will come together to train.
Sheriff Brian Pixley said the CCSO is currently seeking out training opportunities to try to make sure their deputies are fully prepared for “what may happen down the road” and said he talked to Greenway first, given his experience.
“I really wanted to partner with him because he has the actual kind of boots on the ground experience that luckily we have not had to endure yet,” Pixley said. “He’s been through it, knows what worked and what didn’t, and we’re trying to build on that experience.”
Given the recent rash of shootings in American Walmarts, Pixley said there has not been any specific discussion on how to handle such a shooting as opposed to one that occurs at a school but said the law enforcement response would be very similar.
Greenway said he’d experienced an active shooter situation at a Walmart in Las Vegas – a male and female had just executed two police officers at a local pizza place and ran into Walmart afterwards. He said the responding officers were able to use Walmart’s security cameras to take out the threat.
The SHPD has also updated their patrol vehicles and outfitted them with the latest technology and equipment – things like shields, hooligan tools, sledgehammers and extra ammunition.
If someone were to find themselves in an active shooter situation, Pixley is quick to mention a youtube video called “Run, Hide, Fight” which explains what to do.
“People need to one, get to safety and call the police, but two, they need to be prepared to run like hell and get someplace safe, hunker down and hide,” Pixley said. “But mostly, they need to be prepared to fight. If they get in there and get confronted by the bad guy, they’re going to have to react. Hopefully, they’ll know how to do that.”
Greenway echoed the sentiment in his own interview.
“We actually did an active shooter drill with the St. Helens High School in the spring. My advice to anybody who’s caught in an active shooter situation is to get out of there as soon as you can,” Greenway said. “Don’t worry about your valuables. Don’t worry about your purse. Just get out.”
When the school teachers did the drill, Greenway said they were able to barricade backpacks and desks in the classroom so that when those roleplaying the “shooters” went by, the classroom looked vacant.
And, of course, both law enforcement leaders wanted to remind the community of that old adage: if you see something, say something.