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Originally published December 12, 2012 at 7:07 PM | Page modified December 12, 2012 at 8:56 PM

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Seattle-area police train to handle events like mall shooting

Local law-enforcement agencies have changed their tactics for dealing with shootings in public spaces, such as the one in an Oregon mall this week.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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At least once a year, every Seattle police officer — from street cop to homicide detective — is trained to deal with the kind of mass shooting that erupted Tuesday at the Clackamas Town Center.

The department's rapid intervention training is based on the analysis of real-life incidents and is designed to identify and teach the most effective ways for dealing with fluid and evolving events, said Seattle police spokesman Jeff Kappel.

"Police work is unique, and the sad fact of our profession is that you sometimes learn the best practices tragically," he said.

Kappel would not discuss specific tactics for "obvious reasons — the bad guys can use it against us." But he did say police are trained to "confront and stop an active shooter" in such situations.

That tactic, now standard among law-enforcement agencies, was dictated by the tragedy that unfolded April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. At the time, it was routine practice for the first patrol officers to arrive at the scene of mass shootings to set up a perimeter and await the arrival of SWAT team members or backup officers.

But critics said doing so gave Columbine gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold time to take additional victims. In fact, police did not enter the high school until nearly 45 minutes after the gunfire was first reported.

By then, 12 students and a teacher had been killed or mortally wounded before the gunmen took their own lives.

The police response at Columbine drew harsh criticism from the grieving parents of victims and spawned numerous lawsuits.

"As a result of many situations around the country, specifically Columbine, we have learned that we need to neutralize the suspect as quickly as possible to save lives. Now instead of waiting for SWAT, first arriving officers can form a team, enter the building and attempt to locate the suspect," said Sgt. Cindi West, spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff's Office.

That tactic was employed at the Clackamas Town Center.

The first officers to arrive formed groups and rushed into the chaos, rather than waiting for the more heavily armed SWAT team. Police told people in the crowded mall to put their hands in the air, to make sure an armed person was not among them.

By 3:51 p.m. — 22 minutes after the shooting was first reported — all of the victims and gunman Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, had been located.

Tacoma Police Department spokesman Mark Fulghum said his department has refined its tactics in the years since Dominick Maldonado opened fire in the Tacoma Mall, wounding six people, on Nov. 20, 2005.

Unlike the Clackamas Town Center shooting, Maldonado took several hostages inside a mall music store, and the incident didn't end until four hours later when two of the hostages helped disarm him and walk him out to police.

Tacoma police regularly hold "tabletop exercises" with law-enforcement agencies from surrounding communities to prepare for the events that "can't be predicted," Fulghum said.

The department now has access to the floor plans of all buildings that could hold a large number of people, which helps police visualize where a shooter could be and how he could be stopped.

"We fine-tune our response and our communications and make sure we are all on the same page," Fulghum said. "We definitely learned from it. But hopefully we never have to go through it again."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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