Beyond the murders and the motive, here is what you need to know about the San Bernardino shootings as it applies directly to you here in the Valley:
No place in America is immune to such an attack. It can happen anytime, anywhere, as 355 reported mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015 suggest. The shooters could be mentally ill. They could be gang members or other hardened criminals. They could be racists. Or, as it turned out in San Bernardino, they could be radical Muslims. None of them will have a problem obtaining assault rifles, period.
Secondly, in the overwhelming majority of cases, law enforcement can only react to these shootings – not intercept and prevent them.
When the attack began, officers in San Bernardino County were an hour into an active-shooter response training session. Before they could complete the imaginary scenario, the real thing broke out. When the terrorists burst into a holiday party and strafed the room, killing 14 people and wounding 21 more, the officers responded quickly because they already had mobilized. They tracked down and eradicated the killers in a San Bernardino street, stopping more possible slaughter by virtue of the timing of the training exercise.
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Preventing such an incident takes vast intelligence-gathering capabilities along with people willing to come forward when they see or hear something that triggers suspicions. That happened at Summerville High School in October, leading to the arrests of four students whom authorities believe intended to shoot up the campus. A student became suspicious while overhearing a conversation at the school. The student reported it to an instructor who, in turn, took it to administrators. They contacted Tuolumne County sheriff’s detectives, who investigated the case and made the arrests.
Had anyone shrugged off the threat as just kids talking tough, sheriff’s deputies here might have found themselves in the same response mode as those at Columbine, Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino or other mass-shooting locales.
“We were very fortunate in what took place and what didn’t take place,” Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said. The close call compelled him to step up efforts to map out many places where people gather – schools, theaters, shopping centers – and store the information in a database that law enforcement can access and review on the way to an incident. But make no mistake about it, he said: “It is reactive training.”
Training and tactics, Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll said, changed after two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded 20 others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Until then, officers waited until at least four or so were on scene.
“(Officers) were trained to surround,” he said. “Now, the training’s evolved to take action right when you get there. The first officer is to go in and stop the shooter.”
He’s big on training in workplaces and schools, including safe rooms.
“The best approach you can do is think out escape routes,” he said. “In the Planned Parenthood (attack, also in Colorado, that killed three people and wounded nine others Nov. 27), they had a safe room. He (the shooter) never got past the lobby.”
Otherwise, casualties might have been much higher.
The Modesto Police Department, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and other public safety agencies recently held active-shooter training at Vintage Faire Mall. The Modesto police also developed plans for schools, the Gallo Center for the Arts and other highly frequented areas. Modesto, the same as many larger cities trying maintain that small-town feel, needed upgrading in many areas when it came to preparing for active-shooter incidents. Upon arriving in Modesto three years ago, Carroll was surprised to learn the police station downtown, which opened in 2000, didn’t have bullet-proof glass in the lobby. He immediately set about rectifying it.
Carroll invested in gear including ceramic vests and helmets designed to withstand high-powered bullets, and has equipped some his officers with the same AR-15 assault rifles the terrorists used in the San Bernardino shooting, and is considering adding more to the department’s arsenal.
“What is the cost?” Carroll said. “Do we want to equip every officer with one?”
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, meanwhile, recently returned from a nine-day trip to Israel, where he and other law enforcement officials from the United States met with Israeli experts on terrorism.
“We have a tendency to get comfortable,” Christianson said, referring to Americans. “(Israelis are) surrounded by people who want to kill them. They have the right to defend themselves and survive.”
The Israelis are experts, he said, on the way terrorists use social media to “rally young people who become radicalized,” said Christianson, who cited border protection and security as top priorities.
Even so, the overwhelming majority of mass shootings, including the one in San Bernardino, involve U.S. citizens. Americans by nature demand privacy and detest the thought of the government monitoring our phone calls, online activity, finances and anything else that violates privacy. You can drive through a neighborhood and never have an inkling who may be plotting evil inside one of the homes. The gun debate looms largest and loudest of all.
All three – Mele, Carroll and Christianson – refer to a “fine line” of balance between personal freedoms and the security measures needed to protect people.
And we’re a diverse society, as much here in the Valley as anywhere in the nation. In reports emerging from San Bernardino, one of the neighbors of the killer couple claimed to have suspected they might be up to something but didn’t report it for fear of being considered racist or bigoted because they were Muslims.
Sniffing out plots beforehand will take neighbors being more observant about neighbors and erring on the side of caution. It worked at Summerville High in October, but the bigger picture won’t change.
Police will continue training to react because they’ll have to continue reacting.