Just over a month after 12 people were killed during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Suffolk County police told theater owners to start thinking through plans to deal with a mass shooting, even if the odds of one occurring are unlikely.
Suffolk County Police Department held an active shooting seminar Tuesday morning for more than 40 local theater owners and managers at Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood, covering a history of mass shootings in the United States and reviewing preventative counter measures.
"It's very unlikely anyone here will have to be involved in response or prevention of an active shooter incident. They don't occur very often, but when they do, the consequences are so tragic you can't be unprepared," said Deputy Chief Mark White.
The training seminar comes in the wake of the July 20 shooting in Aurora, Colo., where James Eagan Holmes is accused of entering a theater and opening fire, killing 12 people and injuring 59. Suffolk police at area movie theaters the following night.
"My concern for Suffolk County was a copy cat attack or some kind of suspicious behavior could cause a panic," said Inspector Stuart Cameron, who led the seminar.
The SCPD has specific rules and procedures in place to deal with an active shooter, which they define as someone, “who has used deadly physical force against others and continues to do so; and it is reasonable that the shooter has unrestricted access to additional victims.”
Cameron told theater owners time is of the essence should one of these situations arise.
"They are going to continue to shoot people until something happens: they run out of ammunition, they run out of victims, or we stop them," Cameron said.
The inspector said he has read studies – based on a history of mass shootings in the U.S. dating back to the 1920s - that estimate once there is an active shooter, a person is shot every 15 seconds.
"What active shooters do is study prior attacks and express a desire to outdo prior attacks in body count - not only to shoot more people but kill more people during the attack," Cameron said.
There are steps theater owners and managers can take to help reduce the odds of a shooting.
"We see very often in terrorist attacks that they tend to do dry-runs. It's an opportunity to prevent the attack," the inspector said.
Cameron said movie theaters are what Homeland Security calls "soft target" due to the number of doorways, entrances, and the constant shift of people in a movie theater as there are different people at every showing. It makes it more challenging than schools, Cameron said, where teachers can hold drills.
Police advised both theater owners to think through their response to "what if" scenarios and to devise a more definitive plan of action and train their employees.
He also encouraged theater owners to allow police officers who regularly patrol their area inside the movie theater, especially in large complexes, so they are familiar with its layout and where specific theaters are.
One last piece of advice Cameron said was to put obstacles or barriers in front of the shooter, as it helps to slow them down and protect potential victims. It also gives police time to arrive on scene.
"I think the information we are learning today is very important to learn about the cues that we might not have paid attention to in the past," said Diana Cherryholmes, director of the Huntington Arts Council.
The Huntington Arts Council holds outdoors concerts each summer that bring more than 59,000 to Heckscher Park, as well as numerous outdoor festivals each year.
Jerome Kohn, associate dean of administration at Five Town College, said the college had lockdown plans after the Virginia Tech shooting, then made plans for its theater in the past month. Though more work could still be done, she said.
"Maybe we'll improve our camera system or improve our surveillance by public safety."
He did note, despite the shootings, attendance at Five Towns theater programs has not been affected.