MERCED -- In an effort to thwart violent shootings such as last week's movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., the Merced County Sheriff's Department held a training session Monday that focused on how to respond to similar situations.
Several sheriff's deputies gathered at a shooting range in Merced County for firearms training with handguns, rifles and shotguns. Officials requested the location of the range not be disclosed.
Those in attendance also got a refresher on an active-shooter training course -- an annual exercise that prepares law enforcement to immediately take action if one or more people start firing guns in a public place.
Last week's massacre in Aurora left 12 people dead and 58 wounded after a man in tactical gear fired into a crowded theater. Law enforcement officials said such tragic events are unpredictable and can erupt anywhere -- so training for them is critical.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said other local law enforcement agencies sometimes take part in the active-shooter training to ensure that regardless of who arrives on scene first, officers are ready to coordinate and take immediate action.
"Evil and pernicious people come in many forms, and we train to be prepared for them and these events," Pazin said. "You just never know what's going to make them react the way they do."
The goal of the active-shooter training, which is certified through the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, is to make best use of limited resources across law enforcement agencies in Merced County and ensure quick response to any crisis.
"The old theory of waiting for reinforcements to arrive was passé," Pazin said. "We have to be immediately engaged, and this is how the Aurora Police Department, to their credit, got in and took the initiative to start going into the theater, even though this killer had already exited.
"It could have been much worse if he'd gotten a second wind and went back into the theater," the sheriff said.
Monday's active-shooter exercises focused on drills where four deputies formed a diamond shape with a point man, two side guards and a rear guard. The unit moved forward, backward, left and right, but didn't rotate.
Sgt. Chuck Hale, who supervises the firearms training unit, said the units talk, move and communicate in a standardized approach that officers from other law enforcement agencies have been familiarized with.
"We're out here to be able to react to a threat -- that threat could be standing still or it could be on the move," Hale said.
Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said Monday's training was planned long before the Aurora massacre and just happened to coincide with it.
The Sheriff's Department tries to hold active-shooter training every year, he said. Firearms training used to be held about four to six times a year, but because of tighter budgets for ammunition, those exercises have been cut to once or twice a year.
"We just don't have the money for it," MacKenzie said.
This week, the Sheriff's Department is holding mandatory training for all sworn personnel who carry firearms as part of their duties.
"Firearms (training) is a perishable skill just like anything else, that's why we try to train as often as we can and as often as budgets and time will allow us," MacKenzie said. "A lot of times, we will reinforce the basics during our regular range training because when you get into a stressful situation, you refer to training and you refer to muscle memory."
The drills come in useful for deputies even during routine shifts and can be used for various situations, such as clearing out a building, officials said.
While the tactics practiced in the active-shooter drills often are used during noncatastrophic situations, they're also geared toward putting a fast stop to potentially disastrous scenarios.
"It's designed to offer the most coverage and protection to law enforcement so they can react or get to where the danger is greatest in the least amount of time," MacKenzie said.
"It's designed to protect the officers and the public so the officers can get to the threat as soon as possible."
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.