Police give tips for responding to mass shooting

STRASBURG – The grim prospect of a mass casualty shooting like those that jolt the nation and the world with regularity drew about 30 people to the town hall Wednesday for advice about how to save lives in a nightmare scenario.

Town Police Chief Tim Sutherly recalled his department’s recent brush with the man who fatally shot two television journalists in Roanoke, then fled north up Interstate 81 past the Strasburg exits and on to I-66. Strasburg was spared from violence when Vester Lee Flanagan II continued on toward Markham where he shot and killed himself. But the incident was a harsh reminder that incidents involving mentally unhinged shooters can happen anywhere, anytime.

Sutherly said the recent rash of shootings are only the latest in a long string that has forced law enforcement agencies to change their tactics and training for dealing with gun-wielding assailants determined to kill as many people as they can with no regard for their survival when police appear with their own overwhelming firepower.

There is no reasoning or negotiating with people in the midst of a homicidal frenzy, Sutherly said.

The massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 was a watershed moment, Sutherly said. Police initially kept their ideas about how to respond to mass shooters among themselves in an effort to dampen publicity that could inspire others to commit copycat crimes.

“We’re beyond that now,” Sutherly said in an interview. “The seed has already been planted. Why not teach people to defend themselves?”

Sutherly described steps people should take to save themselves and others if confronted by a lone shooter determined to go on a killing rampage.

All of the options involved come down to either fleeing, hiding or, as a last resort, fighting the assailant with whatever weapons may be available, Sutherly said.

Exiting a building under attack and knowing the quickest route to safety away from the shooter is the safest choice for those inside a structure, Sutherly said.

Those who cannot make it outside should try to take cover in their immediate area. Locking doors, turning off lights, barricading entrances, keeping quiet and staying away from entrances are important precautions, Sutherly said. Brick walls, trees, poles and buildings can effectively shield someone from bullets.

Those fleeing on foot should try to avoid running in a straight line if possible, Sutherly said.

Fighting the shooter as a last resort could require rushing him with all available people, throwing objects at him, or quickly fashioning an improvised weapon to take him to the ground, Sutherly said.

Calling 911 if possible is crucial, but those in danger from a shooter should also take care when approaching police arriving at the scene, Sutherly said. Bystanders should drop anything in their hands and keep their hands in view around officers.

“Our anxiety is going to be high as well as our stress level because we’ve gotten calls from dispatch,” Sutherly said.

Bill Spiker, a member of Round Hill Church of the Brethren in Toms Brook, said he came to the meeting to ask about what people should do if a shooter invades a church service.

“That’s a big concern at our church now,” Spiker said, adding he was pleased with the advice he received.

Cheri Wright, the executive director of the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, organized the meeting with Sutherly. She said she got the idea after reading about a similar initiative in Oklahoma.

“It’s something you’re seeing across the nation, and it’s something you’re hoping it can’t happen here,” Wright said of mass casualty shootings.

Wright has scheduled a similar community meeting to be led by the Woodstock Police Department from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Shenandoah County Government Center at 600 N. Main St. in Woodstock.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com