As of presstime, there had been 22 separate school shootings in the US during 2015, resulting in 19 fatalities and 38 people injured. It happens so often these days that incidents with few casualties barely get a mention in the national media; but some, like the October 1 attacks at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon — ten dead, nine wounded — still grab national headlines and give parents nightmares. What measures, we wonder, are the campuses in our own backyard doing to prevent such tragic carnage from happening here?
At SUNY New Paltz, the man with the answers to that question is David Dugatkin, who has been the chief of the University Police since 2011, following more than two decades with the Town of New Paltz Police Department. According to Dugatkin, his officers are well-trained and fully equipped to intervene in and neutralize an “active shooter” situation, using “best practices” in the law enforcement field that adhere to national and SUNY-wide standards.
“Anywhere on this campus, the average response time is two to four minutes,” he says. “We’re open 24/7 every day. We have officers on motor patrol and foot patrol walking all over campus.” The officers are armed: “The equipment we use is carried with us 24/7….We are equipped to defend, and to go on the offensive if we need to.” That being said, the campus police don’t go around rigged like a SWAT team. “We frown on rocket launchers,” jokes the chief. “No tanks on campus.”
So what would happen, exactly, if an armed intruder should be spotted here? The college has a detailed Emergency Response Plan, posted on the school website, with different versions geared toward students, faculty and staff, advising them what to do in the event of a lockdown, or if they see someone carrying a weapon or otherwise acting in a suspicious manner. From a law enforcement perspective, Dugatkin breaks the response protocol down into four broad steps.
“In the event of an armed intruder, first, we would activate the mass notification system,” he explains. There is an outdoor speaker system, mostly mounted on poles: “We’re adding to those every year, and we’re beginning to integrate speakers into the inside of buildings.” That internal communications system has been “ramping up” since Dugatkin’s hiring four years ago: “It’s a new initiative. The college has been very responsive.”
Step Two is “activating NP Alert. That’s our mass texting and e-mail system.” Students are subscribed to the service by default, but can opt out if they wish. But what if a student is a neo-Luddite who doesn’t carry a cell phone or pager? “That’s where social media comes in,” Dugatkin says. “Your friends down the hall will let you know what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, as the college population is put on high alert, the University Police are already swinging into action. “Our first and foremost priority is to neutralize the threat…in the most safe and efficient way. Our officers are trained to locate, engage and not back down until it’s resolved.” But that doesn’t mean running in spraying gunfire: “We always want the ‘bad guy’ to drop the gun and surrender,” says the chief. “We’re not going in with a mindset of ‘shoot to kill’; we’re going in with a mindset of neutralizing.” Once the threat has subsided, Step Four consists of “addressing anyone who’s injured, securing the crime scene and then conducting your investigation.”
But what if it’s not entirely clear who the “bad guy” is? In the aftermath of high-profile shooting incidents like the recent one in Oregon, the question of whether or not it might have helped or hindered to have armed civilians on the scene invariably arises in a number of media forums. Aside from the fact that it’s illegal, since “New York State law prohibits firearms on state property” like a SUNY campus, Dugatkin comes down on the “hinder” side of the argument. “Part of the training that our officers receive is on these kinds of situations where there’s mass hysteria and they have to make a split-second decision as to who the bad guy is,” he notes. “A self-appointed helper has the potential to make a very difficult situation even worse by getting caught up in the mix.”
The chief says that he has not received messages of heightened concern on the part of parents of SUNY-New Paltz students in direct response to the recent spate of campus shootings nationwide. But an incident on this campus on October 5, which turned out to be a false alarm, did spark a flurry of inquiries that were later laid to rest after reports of the results of the investigation were publicly released. In that instance, the campus police received “fourth-hand reports” that a male student in the Sojourner Truth Library was “staring at people and making them uncomfortable.” He was reportedly clad in a long black overcoat, similar to those used by the students who perpetrated the 1999 Columbine massacre to conceal assault weapons. And the student was said to have been “making hand gestures at people as if it were a weapon,” Dugatkin relates.
The actual situation turned out to be something rather different. “Three officers immediately respond to the Library, very quickly locate this person and interview him,” recounts the chief. “Turns out that he’s a foreign exchange student who had not mastered the English language yet. It was a cultural thing. He was staring because he was not comfortable talking to people. He denied ever putting his fingers in a gunlike motion.”
The officers determined at the scene that the student was not a threat, “but we did not stop our investigation there.” They interviewed all the witnesses and the person who had made the phone call to campus security; none had seen him miming pointing a gun with hand gestures. The ominous overcoat turned out to be a short peacoat. And an investigator who was later sent to interview the suspect at his off-campus home found him polite and apologetic for his social awkwardness.
The incident had apparently been blown out of proportion by repetition via social media. “It was all over Yik Yak,” a cell phone bulletin-board app that is popular on college campuses, says Dugatkin. “It’s the 2015 version of the Telephone Game.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the next “incident” will be anything so easily defused. So the University Police will continue to get regular trainings using live simulations of emergency situations; the next one is scheduled for the college’s winter break, and “will involve the Town Police and the Rescue Squad as well.” Resident assistants in the dormitories also receive training sessions, and academic departments can have them on request.
Students are also urged to familiarize themselves with the Emergency Response Plan materials available online. “When we run orientations for first-year and transfer students, we make them aware of the manuals,” says Dugatkin. And a collaborative effort with the college’s Communications Department led to the production, on location on campus, of an instructional video depicting an active-shooter situation that is now “used all over the country. It was written, acted, produced, directed and edited by SUNY New Paltz students. What better way to give everyone an awareness of our particular campus?”
Will local protocols change as a result of the Roseburg shootings? “There has been a general awareness, but in regard to our procedures and response, no,” says Dugatkin. “That’s not to say that, when lessons are learned from the reports in Oregon, law enforcement units throughout the country won’t be interested in looking at them and making improvements.”