In the wake of the recent school mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Portland officials hope to reassure the public about how responders here would react to an active shooter threat.
“The response would’ve been vastly different,” Portland Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said during a June 14 meeting of the City Council Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee.
Gautreau said he didn’t want to minimize the tragedy that took place last month in Uvalde while emphasizing his opinion that Portland’s response to any potential active shooter threat would be handled differently than it was in Texas.
Texas state officials are now calling the handling of the Uvalde shooting an “abject failure,” according to the Associated Press. The director of the state Public Safety Department on June 21 said officers who responded to the incident spent time searching in the school for a key that wasn’t actually needed to enter the classroom where the shooter was contained.
Gautreau, who said his wife is a second-grade teacher, added he feels comfortable with Portland’s active-shooter response capabilities, although staff can always improve with additional training.
Interim Police Chief Heath Gorham reviewed Portland’s policies and said training sessions in recent years have involved city police officers and emergency responders, and law enforcement officers from surrounding communities.
“It is important that the first officers arrive on scene, make entry, and move to contact the shooter,” Gorham said. “That is the only way that we can positively influence or stop the taking of life.”
This immediate contact plan is included in the department’s active shooter standard operating procedure, he said, which states the first officers on the scene will make entry to neutralize a shooter.
Portland has six police officers trained in Law Enforcement Active Shooter Emergency Response, or LASER, a nationally recognized program at Louisiana State University, Gorham said.
Police train often for these “low-frequency, high-risk” situations, he said, and conducted multi-day training exercises with surrounding communities in 2018 and 2019.
A large training session was already scheduled for July prior to the events in Uvalde. At the session, the Police Department will train Fire Department staff in tactics and movement. There will also be four days of training in August for response to active shooters, Gorham said.
Conversations between the city and the School Department have also been taking place, Gorham said, with plans to map out and talk through an active shooter event in the near future.
“The schools have their own emergency plans,” he said. “(We will) go over those plans with them and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana spoke at a recent March for Our Lives rally, where he called on the Legislature to prioritize the protection of students and employees from gun violence.
“How can we as a society say that we care about school safety when it’s so easy to obtain the means to follow through on evil intent,” Botana said.
King Middle School held three remote learning days last month after two threats were found on a bathroom wall on May 24. One mentioned the possibility of a protest, similar to those that took place in May at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools, while the other mentioned the possibility of a gun threat.
Police investigated the threat, and nothing of note was found, although remote learning days were held as a precaution.
Councilors revive talks about new public safety building
Discussions about a new Portland public safety center have resurfaced, but it’s unclear how the city will proceed.
District 5 City Councilor Mark Dion reintroduced the idea in the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee meeting on June 14, when he said “the best use of (the current) building has long since passed.”
Dion, a former deputy police chief and Cumberland County sheriff, said he was once familiar with the inside of the Police Department on Middle Street, but he isn’t any longer because the building has been extensively modified.
“I bet we’re all going to be surprised how much money we’ve dumped into that place since it was opened” in the 1970s, Dion said in an interview.
The committee decided it is worth starting the conversation about how much money has been spent on the building and whether a new public safety center should be explored.
Committee Chair Tae Chong said he would reach out to interim City Manager Danielle West.
City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said West recognizes the need for a new public safety center, but due to the pandemic and the change in city manager, the city hasn’t made much progress on it. She said the city hopes to advance the discussion after a new housing and economic development director is hired.
The discussion began after interim Police Chief Heath Gorham shared an update on $100,000 in planned dispatch renovations that include replacing the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. He said the dispatch office is aging, dark, and has leaky windows.
Former City Manager Jon Jennings raised the public safety center question before a committee in 2019 after discussing the costs of renovations on the building. Jennings, now the city manager of Clearwater, Florida, did not respond to phone calls seeking more information about his proposal and how far the discussion got.
But Gorham said a lot of the work on finding a new building may already be done since Jennings was pushing for the move. He said he also recalled meeting with “at least two” architecture crews when he was a major in the Police Department.
Dion said the current building could be repurposed for affordable housing, while a new public safety center would be better equipped to meet the city’s needs, including the possibility of incorporating fire and police in one location.
“We have to start somewhere,” he said. “Maybe the other councilors will start thinking about it.”
— Evan Edmonds