Natchitoches prepared for an active shooter crisis

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Lt. Mathew Powell keeps his sights focused ahead as Det. Amber Shirley guards the left flank. NPSO

Nathan Wilson | Reporter

Gun violence has become a looming threat to communities across the country, and many violent incidents now involve attacks on multiple people.
The recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas and a rash of gun violence elsewhere have highlighted the need for law enforcement to plan for the possibility of future attacks. Capt. Jesse Taitano of the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office (NPSO) is quick to point out the NPSO has been preparing for the possibility of an attack for years. “Making our schools go from soft targets to hard targets, that’s really the goal.” he says.
Taitano reveals the extent of the changes he has seen. “Since 2010 the Sheriff’s Office has been working with the School Board to enhance the active shooter response plan,” he says. He indicates the process of reviewing security measures at each campus is now ongoing. “At the beginning of every school year, the SRO (School Resource Officer) will do a security assessment of their school,” he says. “They go through and say, this door doesn’t lock, or this window’s broken or there’s a hole in the fence.” Once the assessment is complete, the sheriff’s office presents the results to the School Board. “It’s then up to them to make those security enhancements,” he notes.

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Sheriff Stuart Wright reveals the recent crisis has added urgency to the issue. “We have been in discussion with the school board at length the last week or so about things that we can improve on,” he says. “We learned from what happened out in Texas that we may have to modify some of the things that we do.”
Taitano indicates each scenario requires different planning. “There are so many different situations, where you’ve got an active shooter response, you’ve got a response to a barricaded subject, you’ve got a response to somebody who has no hostages and it’s just them,” he explains. The sheriff’s office addresses this by providing deputies with as much information as possible and by using different training scenarios covering multiple active shooter events. “Another very important piece of the pie is transferring information from the person calling in, to the dispatchers, to the responding police.” This is critical to how law enforcement responds to any active shooter event.
Another element of NPSO’s planning is how they deploy equipment and personnel. “All of our patrol deputies and School Resource Officers are equipped with AR-15’s now. Before, we did not.” says Taitano. “One of the problems in Uvalde was breaching the door. A lot of schools in Natchitoches have doors that are solid wood. These doors would be very hard to breach.” He indicates they’re reviewing their equipment. “There are some of us that have rams, and sledgehammers and hooligan tools,” he says. “We are looking at getting extra tools to make sure we can get into places.”
Wright points to the importance of School Resource Officers. “One of the biggest assets we have with (school) resource officers is they talk with these kids all the time,” he says. “They can get information because a lot of these kids trust these officers. They’re a person they look up to. Some of these kids don’t have anybody at home so they do discuss and give a lot of information to our resource officers.”
“You couldn’t tell the difference between a road deputy and an SRO.” Taitano remarks. He indicates the SROs are an essential part of their active shooter preparation because of their familiarity with the school. “They know the layout, they know how to get places. They’re very important. “There is an increase in juveniles who are committing serious crimes and having that SRO student relationship is important. If we have something bad go on and it involves a juvenile (an SRO is) the first person we’re going to call.”
Taitano, who serves as the Patrol Captain and Active Shooter Response Instructor for NPSO, describes the mandatory annual active shooter training all deputies, including SROs attend. “Our deputies are shot at with high speed simmunitions that contain paint balls that will surely make you bleed,” he says before clarifying. He points to his service pistol. “This is a real gun. Glock makes a gun just like this that shoots paintball bullets. It hurts. We have to wear protective gear and all that good stuff, but it takes the level of training to where a deputy will feel stress when he’s doing it,” he says. To enhance the effectiveness of their training, NPSO conducts active shooter trainings at schools and other sites around the parish.

“You cannot compare this to the real thing happening where there is a very good chance you will get shot or killed while responding,” says Taitano. He laments the expectation that officers should be willing martyrs during a crisis. “None of us sign up to rush to our deaths, although many of us would.” he says. “It seems a lot of people fail to realize that police have feelings, families, children and lives that they think about when responding to these situations.” Taitano also mentions common effects officers experience when responding to high stress incidents such as responding to an active shooter event like loss of hearing, loss of fine motor skills, and tunnel vision.
Taitano points to a source of distress for responding officers that he worries will be misunderstood. “We’re not going there to save everybody. We’re going there to eliminate the threat,” he says. “It’s hard to hear you have to sacrifice one to save 30, (but) our active shooter response is to minimize that number of casualties.” He illustrates his point. “Ambulance and fire aren’t coming to render aid on the scene until we neutralize the threat and make the scene safe” he says. “Once it’s neutralized, then we start rendering aid.”
The NPSO wants to do more to mitigate the threat, but there are challenges, as Sheriff Wright emphasizes. “We’ve had to create jobs, pay salaries, benefits, equipment, vehicles, and that comes out of our budget.”
Wright clarifies, “It costs us around a million dollars a year to put these resource officers out at the schools, and we are getting some reimbursement, but we obviously hope we could get more as things progress.”
NPSO also looks for collaboration on training. “We have always offered all of our training to all of our neighboring law enforcement,” says Taitano. He notes a problem: “Everybody’s understaffed.” He indicates NPSO faces challenges coordinating training for its own deputies. “We can’t close the Sheriff’s Office patrol division to train.” He describes having to schedule deputies for training on their days off with overtime compensation. “It’s an administrative nightmare,” he says.
“We’ve even gone outside of law enforcement to do active shooter response training, so I’ve been to three or four churches. I’ve been to some of the private schools and I would do the same active shooter response training that I would do with the (public) school,” says Taitano. “First part is we do four hours of civilian response. It’s classroom stuff, but it’s very important because the teachers need to understand how we’re going to respond… Part two is we get the faculty again and we go over the actual policy. We talk about lockdowns. We talk about how their school is going to respond.”
“There’s been a lot of discussion too about arming some of our teachers and principals and things like that,” adds Wright. “A lot of these folks have military backgrounds and even maybe law enforcement backgrounds so that’s something we’re looking at, but it would require legislation.”
Taitano’s last strategy is to engage with the community for help preventing future violence. He notes that shooters often discuss their plans beforehand. “These things are known to be planned, they didn’t just wake up one morning and say I’m going to go to this school and kill people,” he says. “We can’t do this by ourselves. If you see something or hear something, you’ve got to say something. You can’t wait until it happens. It is going to take all of us to make our schools safer.”