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Mass shootings have changed officers' playbook

Posted July 21, 2012

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— In the 17 years since police officer Lee Sparrow took down a gunman on the streets of Chapel Hill, a lot has changed in the way that officers handle mass shootings.

"Back then, there was no training (for situations) like that," says Sparrow, who retired from the police force earlier this year.

He said officers didn't have the training or firepower to combat a massacre like the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., Friday that killed 12 people and wounded nearly 60 others.

"We had 9 mm Glocks, and that was it," he said. 

But the semi-automatic pistol helped Sparrow and other officers end a shooting spree on Henderson Street in January 1995.

University of North Carolina law student Wendell Williamson, dressed in camouflage and armed with an M-1 sniper rifle and hundreds of bullets, walked down the street shooting at random. By the time Sparrow and other officers got to the scene, two men had already been killed.

A shootout between Williamson and officers followed.

Colo. shooting Chapel Hill connection Colo. shooting brings back memories for retired police officer  

"I (couldn't) believe I (was) hunkered down behind a wall, shooting at somebody in Chapel Hill, North Carolina," he said. "Finally, myself and another officer hit him in the legs."

The shootout was over in less than two minutes and Williamson was taken into custody. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity and involuntarily committed to Dorothea Dix state psychiatric hospital.

Officers now receive extensive training to handle mass shootings, said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. In any situation, the officers' No. 1 priority is to end the violence as quickly as possible – with or without backup.

"We go after the active shooter," Harrison said. "That officer knows he has got to stop that person, because that person is still trying to kill or killing people."

Sparrow said the advancements in officer training were evident in the Colorado shooting.

"Even though I do not know (the officers involved), I am very proud of them," he said.


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  • xwalk2 Jul 24, 2012

    I concur to both comments. The best way to stop a killer is to have greater stopping power than he/she has. If the politicians don't allow the concealed permit to be more socially accepted, I suggest we start using the politicians and policy planners as body armor. I suspect when they have REAL skin in the game they will change their attitude. It's a shame that it will take killing politicians before the law will once again let the public take care of these crazies on our street instead of what we have seen so often where the police, concerned citizens and responsible heroes being vilified by the socially challenged press. -charlie tew

  • Bob3425 Jul 23, 2012

    Kermit60 while I agree with you, a lot do not. People you have permits to carry cannot in the State of North Carolina to carry a weapon at parades, food places that serve alcohol or where an admission fee is charge, and other places like school, state and federal building. Basically in most places where a shooting of this type occur our laws prevent us from having weapons. Could someone carrying a weapon have made a difference will never know. However, we do know the first type he was confronted by armed men; the coward laid his weapons down. The politician answers are the same more gun laws, they don’t realize criminal and killer don’t care about the law.

  • kermit60 Jul 23, 2012

    Better training or weapons would not have helped in Colorado. The shooting was over by the time officers arived even though their response was fast. The only way better traing or any gun would have helped is if someone in the theater was armed and took actioin necessary to stop the shooter.