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American Police Learn Conflicting Lessons Of Terrorist Attacks

How prepared are American police for something like the Paris attacks?

On one level — experience with active shooters — American police unfortunately have more experience than police in any other country. Figures vary, but USA Today has counted more than 200 "mass killings" in the U.S. since 2006.

Much of the training of American officers is built on lessons learned from the 1999 Columbine High School attack, which taught police to be aggressive in active-shooter situations. Instead of just securing a shooting scene to wait for tactical units, police are now told to enter as quickly as possible and disrupt the attack.

But the Paris attacks don't fit the Columbine mold. When American police look at Paris, they think of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India. Instead of focusing on one target, the terrorists there attacked several sites in a coordinated effort that confused and confounded local police.

"After Mumbai, there's the potential for more than one scene occurring simultaneously," says Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.

Lomax says Mumbai inspired a new training model called "Multiple Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities." It emphasizes trying to get a global view of what's happening as quickly as possible. "You might not want to send all your assets to a scenario until you gather further intelligence," Lomax says.

"There's really no place it can't happen," says Maj. Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department. He says earlier this year, his department did a "table-top exercise" — a kind of bureaucratic simulation — to prepare for just this kind of scenario. "We looked specifically at potential multiple active-shooter events, to try to visualize how we would, as a department, as a city entity, address those attacks," he says.

Just a few weeks later, the Dallas Police Department headquarters came under attack from a man who both shot at officers and deployed pipe bombs.

Lt. Tracy Frazzano of the Montclair, New Jersey, police has been thinking about a Mumbai-style attack for the last couple of years, both in her graduate studies and during a stint with the counter-terrorism unit of the Department of Homeland Security. She's an advocate of what she calls "cross-training": making sure police are trained and equipped to save lives with compression bandages and other paramedic equipment; and to prepare emergency medical services to go into areas that may still be dangerous.

"We're now talking about law enforcement escorting in EMS and fire [fighters] into what we call 'warm zone' areas so they can start medical treatment on victims and save more lives," she says.

American police departments are looking to social media to try to get a quicker understanding of what they're up against. Twitter and other platforms can draw a map of coordinated attacks, but that kind of information can also be overwhelming. That's why some police departments have subscribed to data analysis services that can filter the flood of social media that flows from an attack. They would also rely on the "fusion centers," the federally-sponsored regional information-sharing hubs set up after September 11, 2001.

The Paris attacks may also shift the debate over what some people call the "militarization" of local police. Since the Ferguson protests, American police departments have been criticized for stockpiling military-grade weapons and gear, which often end up being used for raids on low-threat targets, such as small-time drug dealers. Many protesters say local police shouldn't even have gear such as automatic rifles and armored cars.

"I believe what comes out of this is there is the need for this type of equipment," says Lomax. The question, he says, is how the heavy equipment should be deployed.

In Dallas, Geron says he doesn't think Paris will undermine the lessons learned by American police departments from the backlash over the deployment of military-grade hardware during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

"You have to be very judicious on what equipment you keep, what equipment you train with and what equipment you have access to," he says. "You have to be cognizant of what are the real threats to your community."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.