TAMPA — Before a mock "active shooter" demonstration by Tampa police on Wednesday, Senior Cpl. Jared Douds told a crowd of hundreds that mass shooting perpetrators come from a variety of backgrounds.
"Unfortunately, after all the studies the federal government has done, they haven't had an absolute demographic," he said.
But the drill itself sent a different message, a local Islamic relations group said. A Tampa police officer pretending to be the shooter wore a scarf that, according to the group, reinforced mistaken perceptions about Muslims.
"I think it's sad, and it's really irresponsible for the Tampa Police Department to reinforce negative stereotypes," said Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
Tampa police said the scarf wasn't meant to portray any group as violent. Instead, it was meant to protect the officer's neck during the mock attack, said Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty.
During the drill, which was held at a Port Tampa Bay cruise terminal, officers exchanged fire using pellets that can leave welts, he said, which is why the officer also wore body armor and a helmet. The crowd also was kept at a distance so they wouldn't be struck.
"It was not intentional," Hegarty said, adding that Douds' presentation before the drill took care to emphasize that attackers don't fall into any one group. "They're not all young men. They're not all Muslims."
But experts say Tampa police should have put more thought into how they depicted the shooter.
"Context matters here," said Terje Østebø, director of the University of Florida's Center for Global Islamic Studies. "I think it's pretty regrettable that they didn't think that better through."
Anybody seeing a photograph of the drill out of context would think, "Muslim terrorist," he said, which reinforces fears and stereotypes. And though the scarf can be worn as a fashion statement, he said, "When people see this, there's no doubt where the connection would go."
Shibly said the scarf closely resembled a traditional Palestinian keffiyah. Østebø said the scarf was commonly worn in the 1970s and '80s by supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but is also a general symbol of the Middle East.
James Gelvin, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and an expert on the social, cultural and political history of the modern Middle East, agreed that the scarf has the distinctive pattern of a Palestinian keffiyah. It is not associated with Islam, he said by email.
"It is therefore not offensive because it associates Islam with terrorism, it is offensive because it associates a people — Palestinians — with terrorism," Gelvin said. "It is also offensive because it associates peoples of the Middle East with active shooter incidents when most of those incidents in the United States (such as those that have taken place in schools) have been carried out by homegrown terrorists and disturbed American youths."
Shibly said the police should have been sensitive to how their dress might be perceived.
"They need to exercise better judgment," Shibly said. "We definitely hope they use this as a learning experience."
The drill was meant to show how chaotic and frantic a mass shooting can be, and how little time people have to react in the unlikely event that they find themselves under attack.
During the drill, a gunman rushed in and opened fire on a group of officers acting as tourists waiting in line at a ticket counter. They sprinted away before they met fire from a second gunman. Minutes later, the mock attack was over.
The point, Douds said, was that active shooter events happen quickly. He suggested that people consider what they might do during an attack whenever they enter a public space.
"Believe it or not, that little bit of a plan will put you so far ahead of the curve," he said.
Times staff writer Claire McNeill and news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.