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Pinellas law enforcement agencies practice reaction in mass shooting simulation

Police and first responders gathered at High Point Elementary School to respond to a reenactment of a school shooting.
A woman, playing an active shooter, confronts a teacher whom she suspects is having an affair while participating in the multi-agency Active Assailant/Mass Casualty Exercise on Wednesday at High Point Elementary School in Pinellas County.
Published Jul. 20|Updated Jul. 20

On a muggy summer day in late July, the blue and yellow halls of High Point Elementary in Pinellas County would normally be empty.

But on Wednesday, actors with fake wounds were escorted into classrooms. Fire trucks and ambulances were parked on the streets outside. Police officers from agencies across the county worked with first responders to set the scene.

They were there to practice how they would work together to respond to a mass shooting at a school.

A group of Largo Police officers search an exterior courtyard for the assailant while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County.
A group of Largo Police officers search an exterior courtyard for the assailant while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It was an eerie reenactment of the tragedies that have taken place in numerous American schools across the country.

A female actor, playing a woman having a dispute with her husband, a teacher, forced her way into a classroom. Shots rang out. The woman then raced around both levels of the school building, firing blanks, before barricading herself in a mobile classroom in the back of the school campus. There, Clearwater police officers participating in the drill confronted and pretended to shoot the woman.

EMTs evacuated children through the windows of two classrooms and carried out the wounded. At nearby Pinellas Technical College, first responders united actors posing as students and their parents.

The specter of the most recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas, loomed over the event. Nearly 400 officers responded to the shooting there, but law enforcement failed to confront the gunman for more than an hour as he shot and killed 21 people, most of them young children.

In a news briefing after the drill, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told reporters he was “disgusted” by the police response to the Texas school shooting. Gualtieri is chairperson of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which was established in 2018 after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland.

“Why did they stay around so long and not act?” he asked, referring to the Texas school shooting.

“The magnitude of the incompetence is just mind-boggling,” he later added. Instead of treating the situation like an active shooting, police responded as they would to a hostage or barricade incident, Gualtieri said.

“I think that the clear lesson, that if people didn’t get it before, that they need to get out of Uvalde is just because the bullets have stopped, doesn’t mean it transforms from an active assailant response to a containment or reactive response,” Gualtieri said.

A group of St. Petersburg Police officers, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies and Largo Police officers work together to search for an assailant and help injured students while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County.
A group of St. Petersburg Police officers, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies and Largo Police officers work together to search for an assailant and help injured students while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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While Gualtieri offered remarks about Uvalde, he said plans for the training had begun long before the shooting there. The training had been in the works for years, but faced delays due to the pandemic, he said. In-depth, regular meetings and planning began in December.

“One of the things I want the public to know and I want the parents to know is we’re doing everything that we can to be as prepared as we possibly can,” Gualtieri said. “And that’s why we’re testing ourselves and trying find the holes, trying to find the vulnerabilities.”

Law enforcement and first responders will begin meeting Thursday to discuss how to improve their response to mass shootings based on Wednesday’s drill. Gualtieri said he plans to release an amended policy based on the analysis, which he hopes to see completed in about 30 days. He declined to give feedback about the drill just yet, saying it would be “premature” at this point.

Rescue workers load a woman into a Sunstar ambulance moments after she was extricated while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County.
Rescue workers load a woman into a Sunstar ambulance moments after she was extricated while participating in a mass shooting response simulation Wednesday at Highpoint Elementary School in Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Unlike agencies’ normal active shooter trainings, Wednesday’s exercise aimed to simulate as realistic of a situation as possible, including everything from wounded actors, evacuations and coordination with EMTs, Gualtieri said. Pinellas law enforcement agencies hope to have future mass shooting drills to practice their response, though the trainings might not necessarily take place at a school.

“Take what you saw here today and probably magnify it at least fivefold, and that’s what it would be in a real incident,” he said.

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