'Active Shooter' Drills Occur in Courthouse
BY JANA MATHIA
Shots were fired in the Whitman County courtroom Thursday. The judge and court staff bolted for safety and spectators hit the ground as sheriff’s deputies responded, shot the assailant and secured two men objecting to the sentencing that had just occurred.
“For me it was super slow motion,” the shooter admitted the next day. For everyone else involved, the incident happened so fast many did not even see the gun drawn.
Friday, the shooter was back to work as a sheriff’s deputy with a couple of bruises from the incident which was an active shooter scenario to test the sheriff’s office response and raise aware-ness for courthouse staff.
The shooter was Deputy Jim Pelissier who also planned the three stage training. “I think it went pretty good,” he said after the event.
The courthouse was locked down at 4 p.m. Thursday to prepare for the event. The first part was to illustrate to staff what an AR-15 rifle being discharged in the building sounded like. Pelissier fired two blanks at a time at different parts of both floors of the court-house. Staffers reported they could not hear some of the shots. Several said the sound was similar to that of someone banging on the vending machines by the front door.
The second part of the exercise was a hostage scenario that tested courthouse and sheriff’s office response. Pelissier and his partner in crime for the day, Corrections Officer and Reserve Deputy Dana Meserve, were both armed with “Simunition” guns as they entered the prosecutors office. Shots were fired in the office and Pelissier and Meserve exited with Deputy Prosecutor Dan LeBeau as hostage. Robin Cocking from Whit-man County Emergency Management was in the hall playing the role of a citizen, yelling there was a gun. Courthouse employees were instructed to activate the panic button at their desks when they became aware of the danger. When the signal from the panic buttons was received at the sheriff’s office, deputies responded to the courthouse and exchanged fire with the gunmen in the foyer.
Pelissier informed the Gazette afterward that all officers and shooters involved were issued special “Simunition” guns which fire plastic, colored soap-filled rounds, and will not shoot live ammunition.
“We go through extra steps to make sure live am-munition does not make it to training,” he said.
Prior to the exercise, deputies turned over all their ammunition and firearms to a safety deputy who issues them the Simunition guns and double checked they had no extra bullets, magazines or guns. The safety officer remained armed and escorted the deputies to the exercise to assure no live ammunition was introduced at any time. The Simunition rounds will not fire from regular guns.
The final phase of the exercise was the courtroom drama. Courthouse staff filled all but the front row of the superior court room. Sheriff Brett Myers handed out paintball-style protective face masks to those near where the action would take place.
At his official seat, Judge Gary Libey put on safety glasses while the court clerk and a staffer took their respective places. LeBeau acted as the prosecuting attorney and County Prosecutor Denis Tracy sat in the defense attorney’s chair. Pelissier set the stage for the audience, explaining this was a sentencing and to have everyone react as they naturally would in this case.
“When chaos starts happening, cause chaos,” he told the crowd, encouraging them to make it hard for the deputies.
The final actor brought in was Sheriff’s Chaplain Ron McMurray in striped prison garb and handcuffs to be sentenced for a heinous murder.
Those involved played out their roles and Judge Libey announced the sen-tence.
Meserve and Pelissier were seated in the front row. Meserve stood to protest the sentencing.
Knowing what was coming and that the deputies would respond, Pelissier told the Gazette it felt like three hours for him to finally draw his Simunition gun and “shoot” Mc-Murray. But for everyone else, it went by in a flash. Deputies entered the court-room from the side door, shot at Pelissier and told Meserve to get down. One spectator yelled there was not room for her to get down on the floor as nearly all the observers had hit the deck when the shots were fired.
Prior to the exercise, Pelissier and the responding deputies had agreed to not shoot at each other above the waist which was the only alteration to how they normally would have acted. Pelissier was shot three or four times in the legs and back.
As deputies secured and handcuffed the assailants, McMurray commented to the press, “It happens that fast.”
Sheriff Myers debriefed the crowd as things wrapped up. He told them it is law enforcement’s job to put down the threat, and it is everyone else’s job to get out of the way. “I hope we never have to deal with this here,” he added.
One note that came out of the exercise was in regard to the panic buttons. Previous activation of the panic buttons has been done by mistake or for isolated cases of difficult citizens. Multiple activations at the same time during the drills locked up the computers at the sheriff’s office. Pelissier noted the problem will be addressed.
Pelissier plans to meet with the individual offices in the courthouse to go over security measures. One main point will be the difference between locking down and evacuation. He added that prior to the exercise, 95 to 99 percent of the staff ex-pressed they welcomed the exercise and starting work on security issues.