Oklahoma law enforcement agencies routinely prepare for mass shooting events like the one that occurred in Connecticut on Friday, but to some degree, the safety of society in general rests on the backs of its individual members.
That's the underlying opinion of leaders from multiple local and state agencies that work every day to prevent violence.
It's like preparing for a tornado, said Stan Florence, director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
“We can't let these types of incidents keep us boarded up in our homes — that would be unacceptable,” he said. “But what we have to do is be sure we take responsibility to make sure, especially at our schools, that we've done everything possible to keep this kind of thing from happening.”
Since the 1999 Columbine shootings, the bureau as well as local police, sheriff departments and the state highway patrol have worked with school officials and other community leaders to prepare a plan of response for such an occasion.
They call it an “active shooter event,” and it's different from typical shooting calls because responders are trained to — as quickly as possible, and without waiting for backup — assess a facility, go inside and then identify and neutralize the threat.
To prepare, Oklahoma City police keep maps of each of the local schools and work with school officials to develop plans for lockdown and evacuation.
At the end of the school day Friday, the department dispatched squad cars to 15 elementary schools in which it has safety contracts just to demonstrate to parents that their children are as safe as possible, Police Chief Bill Citty said.
“The bottom line is there has to be a plan, there has to be emergency operations, there has to be a way to notify everybody,” Citty said. “And what parents need to do is they need to talk these issues over with their schools and make sure they have a plan. You're not going to ever eliminate these types of things from happening, but you can do things to reduce the threats.”
Police in Oklahoma City have tactical teams to help in such a scenario, but for most of Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol would get involved.
Rural law enforcement agencies do receive much of the same training as those in urban areas, but a smaller roster of eligible officers renders reinforcements necessary, said Betsy Randolph, spokeswoman for the patrol.
“If that was to come across our radio and we were to hear they had a school shooting, our troopers would be en route before they even asked us,” Randolph said.
One trooper is assigned to train both urban and rural agencies on the National Incident Management System, a national protocol developed by Homeland Security.
“Incident command is more than just about going to the scene of a massive shooting where there are multiple fatalities,” she said. “It's used so all the different players can use the same language, and so we all understand each other's roles.”
How to help
But there are things the general public can do to help as well.
For one, just pay attention to the people around you, said David Cid, director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City.
The institute trains law enforcement agencies nationwide — from Oklahoma City police to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department — on how to identify warnings and indicators of potential terrorist or violent acts.
There should be a “bias toward action” in those who see hints of trouble before it erupts, from threats to simple behavioral changes, Cid said.
“Typically, they exhibit before acting out violent signs or behaviors that suggest they're about to do something irrational,” Cid said. “And mental health plays a big role, especially in the workplace. Society in general just needs to be aware of these signs and indicators so that we can become stewards of one another's well-being.”
Citty said it's an appropriate time to discuss not gun ownership, per se, but gun control.
Oklahoma's gun culture does not make the state's residents more or less vulnerable to these types of incidents, he said. But the state could lead the way in keeping guns out of the hands of those who intend to do harm.
“Let's put our heads together on both sides and try to decide, try to come to some compromise that's going to help protect the lives of others,” he said. “Eventually, someday, somebody's going to have to make some decisions on addressing how we can keep firearms from individuals that don't have them for the right reasons, but it's just hard to have that dialogue.”