Closed school offers ‘real-life training’ for Middletown police

“It’s real-life training.”

That’s how Middletown Police Maj. David Birk described active shooter and suicide prevention training held Thursday for the city’s police department.

The training comes just one day after the Butler County Sheriff’s Office and local police agencies responded to a situation in Trenton that ended with the death of a hostage and the gunman shooting himself.

The former Middletown Middle School is closed, set for demolition, but that didn’t stop learning from occurring inside the classrooms.

“Nothing better than to train in an old school,” Birk said.

The officers, closely watched and critiqued by Birk, went through three scenarios: an active shooter somewhere in the building; multiple classrooms that needed to be cleared of threats; and someone in a classroom threatening to commit suicide.

The scene, even though it was training, was chaotic as the officers ran through the building looking for the shooter while not firing at others who had a similar description.

“The most realistic scenario we can do” is how Birk described the training exercise. “The officers get their blood pressure up, they are put into live situations, and they see how they react. So far we have done pretty well today.”

Birk also felt it was important for the officers to confront someone who was suicidal. That person was played Thursday by Detective Brandon Highley, who sat on a desk with a gun at his side. He was upset that his wife was leaving and threatening to take the children, he told the officers.

“Just because someone is threatening violence to themselves it may not be a threat to you,” Birk told the officers. If the officers “communicate and there’s dialogue” the person considering suicide is more likely to put their gun down, Birk said.

If not, he said, “It’s a whole different story.”

Twice recently, Middletown police officers have witnessed a suicide, a nationwide trend, Birk said.

He was asked if it’s difficult to go from police officer to psychologist.

“We deal with individuals’ issues on a regular basis,” Birk said. “That’s what we do: We solve problems. Some days we may be a parent, other days we may have to enforce the law or we may be there to settle a dispute. I want them to be prepared. Our job is to assist them and try to get them help. That’s what I want the officers to understand.”

During the active shooter exercise, the officers — Patrolman Terry Ballinger and Reserve Officer Joe Lietz — pulled their cruisers in front of the school, grabbed their rifles, and ran up the steps. Both times, according to Birk, they weren’t reacting fast enough.

“Come on, come on, active shooter, active shooter,” Birk yelled.

Seconds later, there were shots fired. The sound of bullets ricocheted throughout the school.

“You got to find it. You got to find the shot, find the shot,” Birk said.

When an officer hesitated, Birk yelled: “Go to the threat. It’s an active threat. Kids are dying. Kids are dying.”

Afterward, he told Lietz that most school shootings are over within eight minutes, so the first officer on scene can’t wait for backup. The goal is to find and neutralize the shooter. The faster the better, he said.

“You got to be moving,” Birk said. “You have to be moving to where you heard the sound.”

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