The history of active shooter incidents in our country is tragically extensive. One of the earliest however, may not be common knowledge: May 18, 1927, started off in Bath Township, Penn. when Andrew Kehoe killed his wife, who was ill with tuberculosis. Then, in an act presaging the use of IEDs at Columbine High School 50-plus years into the future, Kehoe used a timer to detonate hundreds of pounds of dynamite hidden in the basement of a local school that was in session. A second timer—in another part of the same school—with a comparable amount of explosives failed to detonate. Clearly, Kehoe had been preparing for his day of days for some time. After the explosion, he chose a terminal tactic all too familiar from more recent history. He drove up in a vehicle packed with still more explosives and triggered another detonation, killing himself and others. At the end of Kehoe’s rampage, 44 people—including 38 children—were dead and 58 more were injured.
Between then and now, history recounts numerous active shooter events that we can learn from and use to prepare. The majority of such information comes from newspapers and magazines, the media and the Internet. The opportunity to hear a firsthand account from someone at one of these incidents is rare, but one such opportunity recently came my way.
For a number of years, I’ve been teaching an Active Shooter Response Instructor course. It is one of my passions to share as much as I can on this extremely important topic. At the start of each class, student introductions are called for. As part of this, each person is asked to briefly share anything relevant from their law enforcement experience. In this case, the comments were of a common nature. That is, until Officer Rob Young introduced himself. He basically brought the class to a standstill: as a young boy, he had survived an active shooter incident. To me, this was a firsthand historical opportunity.
Back in Time
Let’s backtrack to Jan. 17, 1989, at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. The morning started with an anonymous phone call to the Stockton Police Department. The caller warned of a death threat aimed at that school. The caller was never identified, but a short while later, Patrick Purdy brought those threats to reality. At 24 years of age, he had an extensive criminal history and a dysfunctional family life that was the polar opposite of the idyllic Ozzie and Harriet standard. Purdy had become involved in the white supremacist movement and carried a hatred of the Southeast Asian immigrants who were settling in the Stockton area. According to various sources, Purdy had mental issues and at one point was evaluated as being a danger to himself and others. (Surely, you have heard this phrase before.) Added to this mix was a history of alcohol and drug abuse. All this now morphed into a violent assault focused on the innocent.
That January morning, Purdy parked his station wagon near the school. The vehicle was packed with fireworks, which he lit with a Molotov cocktail. He then walked onto the Cleveland Elementary grounds where he had once played as a child. He was armed with a Chinese-made AK-47 and wore a flak jacket. It was recess, so most of the student body—including numerous Cambodian and Vietnamese children—were within his field of fire. In the space of three minutes, Purdy repeatedly pressed the trigger, launching more than 100 rounds at these young targets. And then in a frequently repeated terminal behavior, he put a pistol in his mouth and ended his life. Five innocent kids lay dead and 30 others were wounded. Among the latter was Young, who was 6 years old.
As soon as Young shared his story with the group, my mind went into a writer’s “lock and tone” mode. The opportunity for us—and now you folks—to hear and to learn from someone who had been there was sitting in the classroom’s second row. I was very pleased when he agreed to share his experience and his thoughts after the passage of 25 years. Young is now a veteran police officer for a Northern California agency, so he has a unique perspective when it comes to responses to an active shooter incident.
The Deadly Playground
Young was playing kickball with other kids on the school grounds during his first grade recess when he first heard Purdy’s shots. He registered on the danger they signaled and may have even picked up on the shooter’s Molotov cocktail immolation of the station wagon. Young recalled seeing Purdy about 50–70 yards away in a kneeling position firing his rifle, and had the awareness then that it was time to run. He was halfway across the playground when he was first hit in his right foot.
At some point, as the AK rounds continued to seek out targets, he was also hit by a ricochet to his chest. Taking refuge behind a handball court’s vertical wall, he could see bullets splintering through its wooden structure. In a youthful replication of sensory issues experienced by officers during shootings, Young recalled how time slowed down around him. Additionally, while he could see AK rounds blasting through wood, he did not hear the sounds.
Somehow, Young got to a classroom where other children and teachers had taken refuge. Soon, police officers and firefighters started to pour into the school. Eventually, they reached his room. Young remembered the cops arriving first. The latter appeared to be overwhelmed by what they encountered once they rushed inside. Crammed into the room were numerous children and some adults. By this time, five innocent boys and girls were dead or dying and another 30—including Young—were wounded to varying degrees. As the firefighters in the next wave of first responders arrived, the cops moved on picking up the search for the gunman. Young recalled how the fire personnel began to triage the wounded, moving from one person to another. Their presence brought some degree of calm to the classroom’s chaos.
In a lesson for us all, Young shared how comforting their words and presence were for a frightened 6 year old. As they worked on his wounds, a firefighter told him that he was “safe now” and that he was going to make it.
Nearby, Scotty, one of Young’s friends was much worse off with a two-inch bullet wound to the thigh. Remember, this is a young boy suffering this kind of trauma. His life was also saved but it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that a final surgery restored him to some level of physical normalcy. The mental aspect of the incident will probably never be fully healed.
Along with others, Young was rushed to the emergency department at the local hospital. He was told that he was “going to be OK” and “Pain is good—you’re alive.” Visualize the effect of these words (as well as those from the firefighters while still at the school) on a young boy alone in a hospital, wounded and scared, only moments removed from death on the playground. These people giving him comfort and compassion surely made a difference.
Contrary to this calming presence, events outside the treatment room added to the overall stress. Young’s mother was contacted at her work by hospital staff and told “We have your son,” but when she asked for more information, she was told, “We can’t tell you that.” Imagine the impact of such a cold, uncaring statement if it was your child. Through persistence, Young’s mother was eventually told that her son was “alert and asking for you.” In a smart move, she was driven to the hospital by her boss. Young’s father also sped to the hospital, only to find police officers guarding the entrances. His path to finding his son was blocked. He had to shove his way through to get inside.
Diagnosis & Aftermath
Once with their son, the Youngs were told that the wound to his foot was through and through. With a slightly different ballistic trajectory, Purdy’s 7.62×39mm bullet could have totally destroyed the foot or caused even worse damage. Young’s luck—if you can call it that—extended to his chest wound as well. Examination showed that the round had narrowly missed his heart and lungs. He spent three days in the hospital before he was released. Eventually, he returned to Cleveland Elementary School and went on with his life. He became a police officer in 2004.
In his dual role as a survivor and a police officer, Young watched as more active shooter events unfolded in America and other countries. Then came the Sandy Hook tragedy. With his unique background, he felt the need to speak out. His wife encouraged him to do so.
Now, in addition to law enforcement responsibilities, he uses his off-duty time to publicly share his opinions on active shooter events and gun control. Working with the Gun Owners of California, this includes testimony before California State legislature and U.S. Congressional committees. With such opportunities, he voices his concern that gun control doesn’t stop the criminal or the active shooter. Instead, he believes in the need for better protection for our schools. Young voices his concern that there is not enough being done to prepare each campus in America for this threat time and time again.
While waiting for his turn during dry fire active shooter training, Young takes in the days’ events and layers them with the real-life attack he survived as a young boy.
Another focus for him is that trained, conscientious and lawfully armed citizens who choose to do so should have a place in protecting our schools, and if necessary, stopping an active killer.
Reading Young’s story should give you some ideas to pass on to the officers you work with. To help, here are some points to consider:
- Combat the complacency that may creep into your efforts. Face it, the next active shooter event could take place in your town. Revisiting department training in this important topic should not come on the heels of another high profile event. Maintaining a proactive approach should be an instructor’s priority.
- Prepare for the worst case scenario. At any given moment, responding officers should be ready to use extreme aggression as necessary. They should also recognize that the chaos of such an event means that differentiating between victims and the suspect is critical.
- Carry on with the mission: Find the suspect, stop the violence, save lives. This carries with it our responsibility for effective use of a firearm with an equally well developed ability to apply tourniquets and blood clotting agents rather than waiting for medics to arrive.
- Protect the firefighters/paramedics. While it is admirable to carry the fight forward, another very high priority is for medical help to safely get to those who need it. This responsibility includes officers staying with these important people as long as necessary.
- Show compassion for the victims. It will make an impression that may reach far beyond your expectations. Reacting with tenderness—”you’re going to be OK”—to calm traumatized victims’ fears and panic may have an immediate benefit. And this behavior could also have a positive influence for times to come. It certainly worked for Rob Young. Train safe. God bless America.
R.K. Miller retired from the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department as a lieutenant after 30 years of service in a variety of assignments, including FTO, trauma support, beach detail, detective, SWAT and field supervisor. He serves on the staff at the Golden West College Police Academy as an instructor and SWAT Academy coordinator, and as an instructor for the NRA Law Enforcement Activities Division and his own company, National Training Concepts, Inc. (www.ntc-swat.org). Miller holds a bachelor’s degree and is a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. Contact him ar [email protected].