With several high-profile mass public shootings in the past year, higher education officials are evaluating how prepared they are for a possible attack.
A recent survey found that a quarter of campus security officials reported their schools are unprepared for an active shooter.
University of Minnesota police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said his department is fully prepared for such an attack.
“We’re one of the largest universities in the country, and we’re aware that [a shooting] could affect us,” he said. “We as a police department are prepared for it.”
Typically, University police train for an active shooter situation once per year, he said.
During training, University police reserve a building for the day and go through a simulated active shooter attack, Miner said. They use non-lethal weapons, like paintball guns, to simulate the stress of being shot at.
Although Minneapolis and University police rarely train together directly, Miner said the two departments communicate through their dispatch centers. If a shooting were to occur on campus, he said Minneapolis police would be notified.
The University does not have its own active shooter training program for faculty and staff, said Lisa Dressler, departmental director of University Emergency Management, but it’s using the National Incident Management System as a guide as they develop one.
For now, the University offers free online emergency response courses, prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to students and faculty. The training courses cover multiple emergency situations, including active shooter response.
One of Emergency Management’s primary roles is to provide resources like emergency medical service to University police in emergency situations, Dressler said.
“Our main role is to support [University police],” she said. “We offer them support through our resources.”
Miner said University police also offer active shooter training courses and presentations to student and faculty groups.
“It’s less of a hands-on training and more of what to do if you ever face that situation,” he said.
Minneapolis Police Sgt. Steve McCarty said his department does not offer any training for civilians, but they do offer advice.
“Getting out of the building first would be ideal,” he said. “But if you can’t, close the door, barricade it, shut off the lights.”
University police also has an instructional video online that discusses how to respond to an attack.
“It’s just as important to train as many members of our community as possible,” Miner said.
Northwestern University police Deputy Chief Daniel McAleer added that most police departments do not have specialized active shooter units anymore. Every officer is trained to respond to a shooting, he said.
“What police departments have been taught since Columbine High School is you can’t wait,” he said. “Because the shooters are usually intent on causing as much carnage as possible.”
The number of mass shootings, along with the frequency of gun violence in general, has declined in the past decade.
Mass public shootings were on the rise in the U.S. until they peaked at 42 in the 1990s, according to Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. There were only 28 such shootings during the 2000s, he said.
“One of the things I’ve seen in the coverage, especially after the school shooting in Connecticut, is a lot of confusion over what’s meant by mass murder, mass shooting, mass public shooting,” he said.
That confusion can lead to a public perception that mass public shootings occur more often than they do, Duwe said.
According to the FBI, mass murder occurs when four or more people are killed during the same incident with no distinctive time lapse between the murders.
Mass public shootings, like the attacks at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, fall under a subcategory of mass murder called mass public shootings, which occur less frequently.
“Those are types of mass murders that involve use of a gun, that take place in a public location,” Duwe said. “But, they exclude those shootings that also occur in connection with criminal activity like a robbery or a drug deal that went bad.”
In addition, FBI statistics show that the overall number of gun-related homicides decreased every year from 2007-11.
“One thing we have seen with mass murders, in general, and mass public shootings, in particular, is that the trends in their prevalence tend to mirror those for not just homicide but also crime in general,” he said.
There are about 30 mass murders that occur nationally every year, but only about four of them fall under the category of mass public shooting, he said.
“It’s extreme violence, but fortunately, it’s still very rare,” he said.
As police train to react to an active shooter, Duwe said the best way to combat mass public shootings is through preventative measures.
“If we target some more of our resources towards prevention, I think that would be time and money well spent,” he said.
Nearly 60 percent of shooters have been diagnosed or show signs of severe mental illness, he said.
“That’s not to say that everyone who is mentally ill is at risk for committing this type of violence,” he said. “But, it does suggest that it is a risk factor.”
Only about one-third of shooters who were or showed signs of mental illness actually sought or received any help, he said.
“It suggests, to me at least, that we have a treatment gap among those who commit this type of violence,” he said.