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Penn Township police train to meet extreme challenges

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Since last fall, all 20 members of the Penn Township police department have completed a training scenario designed to prepare officers for significant episodes such as a school shooting or hostage situation.

The incident-command training — which was led by a police veteran who instructed many of the officers who responded to the LA Fitness shooting in Collier Township in 2009 — was the first departmentwide drill on incidents as extreme as a mass shooting in more than a decade, township Chief John Otto said.

The last similar training came shortly after two Columbine High School students in Colorado fatally shot 12 students and a teacher in April 1999.

“My opinion is, if you're not training officers for an active shooter or a hostage situation, you're really taking a chance.” Otto said. “It's been 13 or 14 years since we've had any kind of training, and that's unacceptable to me.”

The department paid Command Excellence, a business run by Upper St. Clair police Lt. John Sakoian, $2,910 for a 16-hour training course for township officers. In the most recent session, in mid-April, four township officers joined police from Oakmont and Plum for an exercise at the Penn-Trafford High School Warrior Center.

Otto and Sakoian said they will use that training as the basis for running a drill with Penn-Trafford administrators and teachers before the new school year.

Sakoian estimates he has trained about 1,000 officers in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Beaver, Butler and Washington counties since the mid-1990s, when the Upper St. Clair police decided to provide their officers with specialized training for critical incidents. The impetus for the training was the February 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York City.

In the past, the patrol officers who responded first to a scene were encouraged to surround a suspect and wait for a SWAT team to arrive, Sakoian said. But law-enforcement studies show that incidents such as a mass shooting usually are over within eight minutes, so those initial officers must be prepared to neutralize a suspect before more lives are lost, he said.

“We saw that people with an agenda are not waiting for SWAT,” Sakoian said. “They're looking to destroy as much as they can.”

The topic of school safety has been amplified nationwide since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December.

In the aftermath, the National Rifle Association has called for schools to post armed guards in their buildings, and some state legislators introduced legislation that would enable teachers to carry firearms on school property.

In Penn-Trafford, school officials met with local police and emergency personnel in January to review the district's crisis plan. Assistant Superintendent Matthew Harris said the upcoming drill will be important for explaining to educators what police want them to do during a potential emergency.

Otto said the training will go over the history of school violence and take educators through a simulated incident.

“It's just one of those things that, if you don't train for it — if, God forbid, something happens, it's going to show,” Otto said.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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