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Frequent tragedies spur 'mass shooting protocol' handbook for local officials


The mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., last weekend shook that city in ways no one can truly prepare for. How is a community supposed to know what to do after a tragedy like that? But sadly, mass shootings have become common enough in the United States that there's now a practical step-by-step handbook designed to help local officials navigate the immediate aftermath of these incidents. It's called the Mass Shooting Protocol, and it's a four-page checklist that covers how to help victims, share information with the public, handle vigils and charitable donations and more. It was written by UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. And we're joined by its director, Sarah Peck. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH PECK: Hi. Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: We're glad to have you. And also with us is Nan Whaley. She's a former mayor of Dayton, Ohio, which had a mass shooting in 2019. Now, as part of the UnitedOnGuns outreach team, Nan Whaley shares her experiences with other local officials after a mass shooting happens. Nan, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to you, too.

NAN WHALEY: Great to be here. Thank you.

PFEIFFER: Sarah, this document is meant to help mayors and city managers in the first day after a mass shooting. How did your group create this checklist and decide what the most important decisions are for local officials in those initial 24 hours?

PECK: Well, this project started at the suggestion of Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh. I had the opportunity to talk to him after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, and I asked him, what did you need on that day that you didn't have? And he said, it would have been helpful to have a protocol that would help me understand the breadth of my responsibilities on that day. And so I went back to Northeastern, and I got approval to do research. And we prepared a template that allowed us to interview 16 city officials that had responded to mass shootings in six cities, and Mayor Whalen was one of those mayors.

PFEIFFER: Mayor Whaley, when Dayton had its mass shooting and you were in charge of the city, did this protocol or this kind of protocol exist?

WHALEY: It hadn't yet. Sarah was beginning to work on it. You know, Tree of Life, I think it happened about a year before Dayton. I learned a lot of what to do, frankly, from listening to other mayors that had gone through this. We would be at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Buddy Dyer, for example, would talk about the experience of Pulse nightclub in Orlando - and Mayor Peduto at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. And you always had the sense of not if, but when, I have to say. And so I would listen in on those sessions. So I had that. And then luckily, I had many mayors that morning that, when the shooting occurred overnight, call me early in the morning and give me really helpful advice.

PFEIFFER: Sarah, when a mass shooting happens, emergency responders and law enforcement officials also obviously immediately have to jump into action. Why did you decide to focus instead on elected officials?

PECK: Well, police do active shooter drills. They are prepared to respond to these incidents. But unfortunately, a lot of mayors don't understand their role until it's happened in their city. So we took the lead from law enforcement to figure out a way to pull together the resources that a mayor could use, both to prepare for a mass shooting, which is one of the things that law enforcement does, but also to give them the guidance that they need through the response and long after. After the law enforcement piece has ended, the city's role will go on sometimes for years.

PFEIFFER: Interesting. So the police, the law enforcement, they're less likely to be paralyzed by this because they're trained for it, unlike a mayor, necessarily.

WHALEY: Well, I think, too, to Sarah's point on that, they're really different roles. You know, law enforcement's roles is to preserve the scene, to make sure that the suspect is contained, that the place is safe - right? - those very fast pieces that are needed. And certainly, that's not the role of the mayor, but the mayor's role is to communicate with - in partnership with the chief of police or with FBI or whichever. It's whichever law enforcement groups are working on it. And they also - I think it's a really important job of the mayor to talk to the community about what this means for their community and to communicate authentically and openly but also protect victims and families and give the police the space to communicate with victims and families who've lost loved ones.

PFEIFFER: Sarah Peck, in many communities around the country, there's gun violence that is not classified as mass shootings but may involve many people and doesn't even barely register on the public radar. But it can have consequences just as devastating as a mass shooting. How well do you think this playbook would work in communities where this type of gun violence is more common?

PECK: It's a good point. The night before the Buffalo shooting, there was shootings in Milwaukee. One incident involved the shooting of 17 people. People are traumatized, and they need support and services in the same way they do in active-shooter situations like we're talking about here in Buffalo and in Dayton. So what we're recommending is that mayors call a press conference, use the same language of empathy and public safety and unity to look for services to provide for the victims and to look at this as a mass shooting with the same level of interest and desire to prevent, as we do with these other active shooters that we hear so much about in the press.

PFEIFFER: Earlier in our conversation, one of you made the point that the fact that you created a mass shooting handbook at all suggests that local officials shouldn't be wondering if they'll ever have to do with a mass shooting but when. How seriously do the two of you think mayors across the country should be preparing for this?

WHALEY: Oh, I think they are. I think the answer is they know, and they are. I mean, it's part of what we talk about when we have newly elected mayors at U.S. Conference of Mayors, right? It's part of the session. So, you know, when we do our convening in December of newly elected mayors, it's how to manage your schedule, how to hire a new police chief if you need to, how to manage budget and what to do in a crisis. And it's typically a mass shooting that is the example. You know, there are all kinds of crises that mayors manage, I mean, from natural disasters, you know, that we've seen like tornadoes or hurricanes. And there's a lot of protocols on that. And the - this has now, I think, become one of those that are almost equal to those kind of crises because they are so unfortunately common.

PFEIFFER: Sarah and Nan, I'm sorry we even have to talk about this, but I hope this checklist will make it easier for other people if and when this happens again. So thank you to both of you.

WHALEY: Thank you.

PECK: Thank you very much.

PFEIFFER: Sarah Peck is with the UnitedOnGuns initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. And Nan Whaley was mayor of Dayton, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.