Would we be ready?

Published 11:59 pm Friday, March 20, 2009

Eleven days ago, eleven people died in what has since been described as the worst mass killing in Alabama history.

A lone gunman, Michael McClendon, killed his mother in the edge of Coffee County, then traveled to Samson and Geneva, taking the lives of nine others – including several family members – before shooting himself.

In the aftermath of that, local law enforcement agencies find themselves analyzing their own abilities to respond to a similar situation. Representatives of each local agency agreed there are two things they need more of to be able to handle a situation like the one in Geneva County: training and equipment.

“I feel like we have to acknowledge the potential that such as what happened there, can happen here,” said Andalusia Chief Wilbur Williams. “We can’t ignore that. We have tried to designate the equipment and training and personnel to be able to protect the city and Covington County.

“No one single agency is sufficient in numbers or in equipment to shoulder the burden alone,” he said.

Andalusia Police Department

Training for unusual incidents like the one that happened last week has been a priority for the Andalusia Police Department.

“At the present time, we have a number of officers in our department who are issued specialized weapons to deal with situations like what happened last week,” Chief Wilbur Williams said. “The issue I’ve heard consistently throughout the law enforcement community was in that battle, the suspect was better equipped than any law enforcement officer – and that’s a problem nationwide.”

Williams said each shift supervisor “has the equipment to deal with that type situation,” but he worries about what would happen if that shift supervisor isn’t the first on the scene.

“We need to go further than just the supervisors,” he said. “If I can provide a weapon and ammunition to an officer that can deal with (a similar) situation instantly and stop it, that might make the difference and it might save an innocent life.”

Williams said departments are “restricted” by things that are not within their control, namely budget issues.

Currently, APD officers are required to undergo eight hours per month of training and are equipped with firearms and bulletproof vests.

“The APD has invested considerable resources in the ability to address similar issues like in Samson and Geneva,” Williams said. “Our overall desire is that we hope we never need it, but we’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

Florala Police Department

Since October, recently appointed chief Sonny Bedsole has worked to bring the Florala Police Department “to a level playing field” with other local agencies. After the recent tragedy in Samson and Geneva, Bedsole said he thinks people now see the need to fully and adequately staff law enforcement agencies.

“One of the biggest benefits here is the agencies’ ability to quickly respond and work together,” he said. “In Florala, the need for equipment and training is greater than ever, as it is everywhere. The more training we do, both as an individual agency and as a group, gets us better prepared for what may come.”

In Florala, officers are required to provide their own firearm and personal protection gear — and Bedsole is working to correct that.

“When I came, I saw that as something that needed to be corrected right away,” he said. “We have ordered M-16 rifles that will be kept in each police car and now we’re working on body armor.”

Incident Response Team

Covington County’s Incident Response Team (IRT) is made up of representatives from each of the area law enforcement agencies. Fifteen men work and train to handle hostage situations in Covington County.

Williams, whose department contributes six of the team’s members, said the county’s team is one of the best-trained and well-equipped team of its size.

The team has a command center/lab truck and each officer is equipped with body armor, firepower, vests and tactical gear and holds quarterly training exercises. Six of its members have completed all of the training available for responding to dangerous situations.

But Sheriff Dennis Meeks said that wouldn’t have been much help.

“Unfortunately, in a situation like what happened over there, there wasn’t enough time to assemble the (county’s IRT team),” said Meeks, whose 29-man department contributes two of the 15 IRT members. “The whole incident was over in about 30 minutes, so it comes down to local departments doing what they could and they did an outstanding job.”

Covington County Sheriff’s Office

Meeks said no matter what type of equipment law enforcement officers have, odds are the person on the other side of the law is better equipped.

“Really, no one is ever really ready for something like that,” he said. “We could get high capacity rifles and could still be out-gunned. We do what we can when the situation presents itself.”

He said his department doesn’t have the funds to purchase the equipment and training needed.

“We train as often as we can, but that takes time and bullets – and money,” he said.

“Our financial situation dictates how often we train,” he said. “The way things are now, ammunition is out of sight, so that affects firearms training.”

The 29 CCSO deputies are equipped with bulletproof vests and personal side arms. Each car has a shotgun and/or rifle, he said.

Opp Police Department

Opp chief Nickey Carnley said in a situation like the one in Geneva County, officers wouldn’t need firearms, they’d need a tank.

“If we had a situation parallel to Geneva’s, I would say I wish I had a tank,” he said. “(McLendon) was so mobile; he couldn’t be pinned down.”

Still, despite the fact that OPD officers have bulletproof vests and personal side arms, and some shotguns and rifles, he’d like to provide them with stronger firepower.

“For our department, I wish we had more rifles – some with longer distance and more firepower,” he said.

“I don’t think you’re ever staffed enough or trained enough when it comes to situations (like in Geneva and Samson,” Carnley said. “And how and what a department responds with is dependent entirely on the type of situation it is – be it a shooting or a bombing, or whatever.

“We just have to hope we have enough firepower,” he said.

Gantt Police Department

Outside assistance from a group like the IRT would be absolutely necessary in a violent situation in Gantt, Chief Chris Byrd said.

This three-man department relies completely on part-time employees, he said.

“We are a very small agency,” Byrd said. “If a situation like that happened here, we would rely completely on outside assistance. There’s no way we could do it by ourselves.”