This is the third installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.
To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.
I wake up around 4 a.m. on Sunday. And then again at 5. Finally, at 6, I get out of bed.
The anxiety dreams kept me in and out of sleep most of the night, as I tried to figure out what was bothering me. I finally realize it was a conversation I had with Zoe the night before.
After church last night, we went to dinner at the Golden Corral. It was after 8 and not crowded which was good because this was the first time I’d be in public with this thing and no jacket.
When we walked in, I immediately managed to make a scene when I reached to take my soda from the counter guy and knocked Zoe’s water all over everything. I was yammering about how sorry I was and the guy just kept saying, “It’s OK. You’re fine.”
Truth was, I wasn’t fine and I knew it.
As much as I made a promise that I wouldn’t use my family as props in all this, I took Zoe with me to church, instead of letting her go with Amy on Sunday, because I felt safer with her than I did in this damned vest. I figured that if someone saw me alone, wearing this thing and not knowing who I was, they might really lose their mind or totally freak out. Me with a kid? I might get a pass.
I hated that I was afraid. And why? What the hell was I really afraid of here? Goddammit…
Nobody said anything or looked at me strangely, which meant either I had been overthinking this whole thing or the people who work there have seen far weirder things than a middle-age man sharing a quiet meal with his daughter at 8 p.m. while wearing a bulletproof vest.
The waiter showed up and placed a business card sized note on our table, letting us know his name was Luis. I judge all waitstaff in exactly the same way: Do they drown me in Diet Coke? Luis filled me up about three times and never seemed to bat an eyelash or stare at me.
A doubly large tip was coming his way.
I noticed one kid about 4 years old staring at me half the night from across the room while his mom played on her phone, but I honestly think the kid was just zoned. I finally ignored him and started talking to Zoe about safety in her school.
I had always assumed they had drills, but the degree to which people dealt with them or worried about them wasn’t really something I thought a lot about.
Do they have drills in your school in case someone comes in with a gun? I asked her.
“Yes, and we practice them about once a month so we make sure we’re good at them.”
A lot of people in the field refer to these kinds of drills as ALICE training, although that refers to a specific program that has come to represent all forms of active-shooter training in school, much in the same way people call all gelatin deserts “Jell-O” or all giant trash receptacles “Dumpsters.”
ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, emerged in the wake of the Columbine shooting as a way to manage an active shooter scenario within a school. Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute who built this approach into a national brand, created and developed this plan to help keep the elementary school where his wife worked safe in the event of a similar attack.
The approach advocated through ready.gov simplifies the ALICE method to include only three key points during an attack: Run, Hide and Fight. The Ready program, which was developed in 2003 as a national public service lists active shooters alongside fires, severe weather and other “natural and man-made disasters” that require public awareness and preparation.
The run-hide-fight approach is the one Zoe’s school used in the event of a shooter. It indicates that students should run to safety if they think they can get to a “safe zone” without unnecessary risk, leaving behind everything else including personal possessions and even friends. If running isn’t possible, the approach tells students to shelter in place, blocking the door and getting in a place where the shooter can’t see them from the hallway through the door. Silence is crucial, but so is getting information to the outside world, so students are encouraged to contact the police or other adults on the outside through texts or instant messages.
Fighting serves as the last resort. Use whatever you can, including scissors, PE equipment and brooms to attack and disarm the shooter.
Don’t stop until one of you is no longer moving.
Zoe outlined the rules specific to her classroom, such as where to hide and what her responsibilities are if the door needs to be blockaded. If escape is possible, she said she knows which ways to get out of the building and where she has to meet up with others from her school.
“We always have to run in a zig-zag,” she explained, motioning her hand in a back and forth pattern toward me.
“Because if I run in a straight line, it’s easier for the person to shoot me.”
It wasn’t so much the statement that bothered me, but the matter-of-fact tone in which she delivered it. She made that life-or-death explanation much like she would say, “I have to charge my phone so the battery doesn’t die.”
I started to take another bite of food but I just couldn’t at that point. I went back to the questions.
“Do you ever get scared when you have to practice these things?”
“Not when we’re practicing them. I guess it would be different if there really was someone. Did you have to do these when you were a kid?”
“No. We just had fire drills and tornado drills. We had to go outside in the parking lot or duck our heads like a turtle in the hallway for a tornado drill.”
All of these drills were intended to keep us safe from something, although the degree to which they could seems variable at best.
Chance Duenkel’s bulletproof vest looks more like a utility kit than a life-saving device. His Point Blank brand body armor contains pockets, pouches and clips that allow him to adorn it with various practical items he requires for his daily duties. A gold sergeant’s badge rests above his heart, while his name tag and SAFE training pin parallel it on the right side of his chest. A small notepad protrudes from an unzipped pocket just above pouches containing safety and restraint gear.
A flashlight is holstered off of his left hip while a pair of safety gloves dangle from a clip on his right. His radio, usually attached to the vest, sits next to him on the table during an interview. All told, the vest and the items adhering to it weigh about 25 pounds, not including his taser and his firearm, which are safely holstered on his belt.
His close-cropped blond hair extends in the front with a sharp wave of gel-supported bangs. His greenish-gray eyes shine past his matte-black-framed eyeglasses and express a happiness that tells people he’s doing exactly the job he always wanted to do. His alertness and enthusiasm run counter to the idea that this man is working 12-hour overnight shifts and has a 3-month-old son at home.
He grew up in Trenton, Wisconsin, a farming community outside of West Bend in a military family that prized duty and honor. Those standards, plus an experience with a Police Explorers group during his teen years, had him excited to become a law-enforcement official.
“I give it a lot to my parents always telling me that if you have the capability to help somebody, do it,” he said. “Honor was always huge in our family, doing the honorable thing, having integrity, being honest, those types of things have always been huge things in our family, so I knew I would want to do something like that.”
Guns were a part of life growing up, and Duenkel said rules and respect were drilled into him.
“My father was in the Navy so he had some familiarity with firearms and I grew up out in the country, too,” he said. “We had a firing range in the back yard, so it started at BB guns and working your way up to .22, bird shot and slowly progressing… The rules for firearms were ingrained into me early on, always treating the gun as loaded, even the fake toy guns, building those rules internally that you constantly follow.”
Duenkel came to UW-Oshkosh for college, where he became a community service officer in 2008. The CSO program partners these students with residence hall advisers to work in security stations, provide students with Safe Walk partners to help them get home safely and assist the campus police department as requested.
In 2012, Duenkel took a full-time job at the police department on campus and said he continues to love the job on campus. He embraces the idea that his job is the same as all law-enforcement officers: keep people safe, eliminate fear and stop crime and disorder.
“I’m a police officer because of who I am, I’m not who I am because I’m a police officer,” he said. “I’m pretty much always in the range of being aware of different things. It gets annoying to some people at some times, but it is who I am.”
Over the past six years, his life has changed in a number of ways, including his marriage to his wife, Samantha, and the birth of their first child, Jackson. When it comes to those life changes, Duenkel said he hasn’t altered his approach to the job, but he knows he has more things to think about now.
“When I got married, when we had the kid, I was surprised at the change,” he said. “It made me pause seeing a couple different things, thinking, ‘Do I really need to be getting into this right now?’ Having that thought, ‘Pull a traffic stop, it could be my last traffic stop’ type of thing but it only drives me more to refine my skills and really prepare myself even more because there is a lot more at stake personally… Make sure that I do go home.”
Although he feels safe on campus and has taken measures to keep his skills sharp, Duenkel said he knows keeping himself alive isn’t always a sure thing.
“There are cases where you can do everything by the book and have all the equipment on you and sometimes the cards are just not in your favor,” he said, recalling the death of area police officer Craig Birkholz.
Birkholz was a military veteran and served as a Fond du Lac police officer until he died in a line-of-duty shooting on March 20, 2011. According to the Department of Justice report, James Cruckson was holding his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter hostage and had threatened to kill both of them if she reached out to the police for help.
When the police tried to free the girl, Cruckson started shooting at them. Official documents indicate Cruckson, an Army veteran, fired more than 50 shots at the officers. When Birkholz showed up in the middle of the chaos, Cruckson shot him twice in the chest. One bullet struck below his bulletproof vest. The other struck just above it.
“It was kind of like, ‘Whoa this happened in our backyard. It’s not California or New York. It’s 15 minutes from here,’” Duenkel said.
“He had all the equipment, he had the experience dealing with these types of firearms and weapons calls and the cards, unfortunately, weren’t in his favor.”
Although Birkholz had participated in a UWO project titled “War Through Their Eyes,” I had forgotten about him and his death. I had also forgotten the name Sergio Valencia del Toro, but not how the random lottery of chance kept his mass shooting from occurring on my campus.
In May 2015, Valencia del Toro was a non-traditional student at UWO, studying criminal justice. The 27-year-old served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of senior airman, and had subsequently enrolled in the U.S. Army. He was engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Haylie Peterson, with whom he shared a home in Menasha, approximately 15 miles up Highway 41 from the campus.
According to media reports, Valencia del Toro suffered from depression and recently had been acting irrationally. On Sunday, May 3, the couple had an argument at their home around 5 p.m., ending when Peterson left the house to get dinner. Valencia del Toro grabbed a 9 mm, semi-automatic handgun and a revolver and rode his bike approximately one mile to the end of the Trestle Trail bridge, a serene area with pristine beauty.
After watching people walk on and around the bridge for an undetermined amount of time, Valencia del Toro opened fire indiscriminately, killing three people, including an 11-year-old girl. He then shot himself in the head. He died later that night at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah.
When the news broke on campus, the staff of our student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, began to dig into the story to report the UWO angle on it. When someone found his photo online, several of us gathered around the computer monitor to see if we recognized him or Peterson. A news reporter got a sickly look on his face.
“They were both in one of my classes,” he said.
He took a deep breath and then asked the question all of us had:
What if he had decided to start shooting people while he was on campus?
When Jarrod Ramos began his attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette on June, 28 2018, reporter Chase Cook wasn’t there. His request for an extra day of vacation might have saved his life.
“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”
Ramos had a long-standing feud with the newspaper, which included an unsuccessful defamation of character suit and a series of ongoing social media attacks. He arrived at the newsroom on that Thursday in late June carrying a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun, which he used to blow apart the office’s glass doors. He had planned the attack for some time, officials said, noting that he had barricaded a back exit to prevent people from escaping.
The shooting left five dead and two others injured. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.
Cook was at home when he heard about the attack. He immediately changed into his work clothes and headed to the newsroom.
“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”
Cook and several of his colleagues gathered in a nearby parking ramp and set up their computers in the bed of a pickup truck, preparing to cover an incident that had ended the lives of several of their colleagues.
“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”
As he gathered information and helped construct the main news story on the shooting, Cook found himself having to go to a nearby mall for supplies.
“I remember going to buy a charging cable for my phone because it was going to die and I didn’t have a charging cable with me,” he said. “I must have looked insane to the person I bought it from because I was sweaty, I had been crying, I was tired and I was like frantic and I must have looked like I was on drugs or something.”
“It was weird, too, because being in the mall, everybody was kind of going through their day,” he added. “They were living a normal experience and my whole life felt paranoid. I thought this guy was following me in the mall I got really paranoid because I kept seeing him everywhere I went.”
In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.
“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve. I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So, I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”
“I felt that nothing would have prevented any of us from putting out a newspaper the next day,” he added later. “Even if I had been dead inside the building, somebody would have done it.”
Accolades for the staff’s work have poured in from a wide array of sources. Time magazine named the staff of the paper among its “Person of the Year” winners in December, interviewing its members at a hotel near the Newseum. Cook said he begged out of that trip, because he is still having difficulty reflecting on his work on the shooting.
“I did not go to the Newseum with the staff because I still had some anxiety seeing the words that I had written, even if they were in a tweet, being on the wall of the most popular news museum in the country,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”
As much as the staff feels honored, Cook said he has trouble coming to grips with the attention and the praise.
“We internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be,” he said.
“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”
If ever a topic personified the adage, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” it would be guns and gun-related incidents.
Federally funded research into gun-related deaths and injuries is weak at best, as a result of the 1996 Dickey Amendment which effectively ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s examinations of the topic. Other organizations, both public and private, continue to study the issue and have come up with a mixed bag of results.
According to the National Safety Council, deaths attributable to guns have continued to increase in the United States over the past 15 years for which we have data. In 2015, the NSC found that 38,658 deaths occurred via a firearm, up from 28,663 deaths in 2000.
The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action has pushed back on this notion, stating that “gun violence is alien to most people’s experiences and the nation’s murder rate has been cut by more than half since 1991 and in 2013 fell to perhaps an all-time low.”
Even statistics involving mass shootings have widely differed among investigators, primarily due to how these incidents are measured.
For example, the Washington Post stated in its expansive look at the topic that 158 mass shootings have taken place in the United States since 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 17 people from the clock tower on the University of Texas campus. Conversely, the website gunviolencearchive.org states that 325 mass shootings have taken place in 2018 alone.
Although mass shootings and random violence associated with firearms garners the most attention, the majority of deaths associated with guns happen without confrontation. Statistics reveal that nearly two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities are suicides, with the remaining one-third falling into the category of “assault.”
The Washington Post’s report indicates that only 68 of the 12,509 “assault” deaths caused by guns in 2018 came in the form of a mass shooting. The 158 mass shootings the paper studied since 1966 yielded 1,135 deaths, or less than 10 percent of all “assault” gun deaths in 2018 alone.
In addition, data from the National Safety Council reports a 1 in 11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting in the course of a lifetime. Of the top 48 causes of death, assault by a gun (1 in 315) ranks 18th, meaning you have a better chance of dying of the flu or by falling than you do of being shot to death. As far as mass shootings go, their ranking at 32nd places them as less likely than dying of choking on food or any airplane/boat/spaceship incident.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more people died from gun deaths in 2017 than any time since at least 1968. The data revealed it was the third consecutive year that the rate of deaths from firearms increased, with about 60 percent of those deaths attributable to suicide.
Statistically speaking, mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of all firearm deaths, thus placing them well below suicides, homicides and accidents on the list of fatalities.
Statistics state their case plainly and simply, but fear’s whisper grows louder with each outburst of gunfire and media report of massive death. As the frequency of these shootings grows, so does the number of people who feel the ripple effect.
“I’m so much more intimately familiar with the wave of destruction that happens after (another shooting),” Cook said. “It’s not just to the bodies of the people who are shot but how it proliferates throughout the community that I just feel depressed and sad.”
Cook continued working at the paper for days and weeks after the shooting, using work to help him cope with the tragedy. He said he didn’t really feel the full impact of the attack until he took a week or so of vacation and the adrenaline surge subsided.
He said he is still working to acclimate to daily life in some ways.
“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”
Cook said the most dangerous thing anyone does on a daily basis is drive a car, something he hasn’t stopped doing. He uses this logical approach to keep his mind quiet when it begins to spiral with fear.
“I try not to live that way but still people knock on the door or ring the bell or something unexpected happens, I get anxious there’s no way to not do that. It happens subconsciously,” he said. “I just try to say, hey, recognize how you’re feeling… Be honest with yourself and how you feel.”
“I think my general sense of safety is different now because I’m constantly having to have that conversation with myself of convincing myself that I’m not in an immediate threat,” he added. “That was not something I thought about before this happened.”
Cook said as he works toward feeling safer, he wouldn’t be inclined to turn to a gun for his own for protection, even though he has spent much of his life around them.
“I don’t know if I would feel safer with more people with guns in the room,” he said. “I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve shot guns. Shooting guns is not a thing you just show up and do. Shooting is a skill and it degrades so if you are going to have a gun, how often are you training with it? Are you confident that you can do something? Are you confident that you can kill somebody? There’s so much more to it than just having it.”
Over the course of his career, Cook has written stories about gun deaths, recalling one about a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting himself with it, which makes him leery of owning a firearm.
“For me personally, I have massive respect for guns,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me. He’s in the Marines. He carries everywhere he goes… So, I’m intimately familiar with guns. I don’t personally own one. I don’t want to own one, only because I’m so aware of their destructive power that I’m afraid of making a mistake and I would rather just remove that possibility from my life by not having a gun.”
As he continues to move forward from his experiences on June 28, Cook said he sees an important conversation that needs to take place, with citizens demanding more of their leaders on this topic.
“It’s an incredibly complicated thing that I think at the basic level citizens should be demanding that their politicians and their newspapers do something about it,” Cook said. “Write about it. Talk to politicians. Demand they have a stance. Make the politician who thinks every teacher should be armed make that stance… explain to people why you think that would solve the problem and start that conversation.”
“It always turns out where people say, ‘Oh, you just want gun control,’” he added. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not smart enough to come up with a solution on my own. I want to hear about it. I want to write about it. I want somebody to convince me that this will solve the problem, and use data, and we’re just not having that conversation.”