As the bullets rained down on him from the balcony above, the officer ran for the nearest cover, a wall 25 yards away. Suddenly, he veered off course, running directly at the gunman instead, firing his weapon. He was completely exposed.
Sahuarita Police Sgt. Michael Falquez couldn't have been more pleased.
The rookie had noticed a magazine dropping out of the gunman's AR-15 rifle, giving the officer a tactical advantage for the precious few seconds it would take the bad guy to reload.
Falquez is Sahuarita Police Department's training officer and the scenario played out during a rapid deployment training exercise at Wrightson Ridge School on June 28.
Over the course of two days, all of Sahuarita's patrol officers and sergeants ran through multiple scenarios involving an active shooter at the school, which is on summer break. Sometimes the shooter was in a classroom or moving around campus, other times he was in an elevated position, 70 yards away. The officers never knew what to expect.
The officers practiced eliminating the threat solo, with one or two other officers and en masse. The "bullets" weren't real; they were "simunitions," or paint-filled plastic projectiles.
Conducting training exercises is a requirement for officers to maintain their certification and Falquez said it helps keep them safe. According to the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, certified police officers are required to obtain eight hours of continuing education every year. They must also pass two weapons qualification tests. SPD far exceeds those requirements, Falquez said.
Already this year, SPD officers have received more than 19 hours of training. They'll be refreshing their pursuit driving skills later this month, but they've already had defensive tactics and Taser classes in addition to the rapid deployment class last week.
Depending on their niche, officers and civilian employees travel for training as well, Falquez said. For example, crime scene personnel have the opportunity to go to a two-week advanced crime scene processing school.
The SPD also recently hosted a three-day drug recognition course for other agencies, he said.
"We want to make sure all of our officers are up-to-date on the current changes in laws, tactics and best practices," Falquez said. "Plus, the more you train the better off the department is and that officer is. (Officers need) to develop that muscle memory because certain skills are perishable. Like if you don’t ever shoot, it’s a perishable skill. You need to practice. Just like defensive tactics and handcuffing."
More than an academy
Some people may think officers receive all of their training at whatever police academy they attend, but they actually get much more practical experience afterward, Falquez said.
Sahuarita's officers go through the 840-hour Pima County Sheriff's Department Training Academy. Once they graduate, they are required to go through a three-week advanced basic training program put on by the police department. They are then assigned to a field training officer for 14 weeks before they are on their own.
"The training we put on is usually more in-depth than what they put on in the academy. They provide a foundation and we just build on it from there," Falquez said.
"Advanced basic is where we teach more defensive tactics. We teach Taser because you don’t get that at the academy, we do ATV certification, we train them on our records management system, how to submit reports into the database," Falquez said. "We also teach them evidence-packaging, a lot of procedures for the department, along with police bicycle certification."
During the rapid deployment training, officers attempt to end the threat as soon as possible to preserve lives and give other first responders a safe place to care for the wounded, he said.
"The premise behind it started with Columbine (High School). Back then, the tactics were to contain the area and then to call in a specialty team, such as SWAT, to come in and deal with the situation at hand," Falquez said. "Unfortunately, that tactic allowed those perpetrators at that incident to basically go around for four hours shooting and killing people at the school. So when it comes to this, we are committed to getting in there and minimizing the casualties."
On April 20, 1999, 12 students and one teacher were killed by students Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18. SWAT teams entered the school 47 minutes after the shootings started and five hours passed before law enforcement declared the school under control.
Each time the officers involved in the rapid deployment training were hit by a paint-filled cartridge, they received an unpleasant reminder that they made a mistake, Falquez said.
"Say they used a bad tactic, you know, maybe they exposed a body part when they’re trying to engage someone from cover. There’s immediate feedback when they get shot. 'Oh, I shouldn’t do that,'" Falquez said.
The officers were required to go through the training with only their handguns. In a live shooter situation, officers would deploy with their rifles, assuming they were qualified.
"We always have our handgun on us, that’s our main tool. But, you can arrive and immediately be taking fire and not have time to grab your rifle because it’s in a secure location. If you're immediately taking fire, you go with the weapon you’ve got, you go with your handgun."