Outgunned: School police officers don’t always have access to guns with best range

Some schools decide to add rifles after investigation
Viewer Warning: This story contains footage and audio from police response to a school shooting. Reported & Edited by Brendan Keefe.
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 5:25 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ATLANTA, Ga. (InvestigateTV) — In school shootings where the intruder is armed with a rifle, some police officers are outgunned.

An InvestigateTV national survey of police departments at school districts and those employing school-based officers found some officers do not have access to a patrol rifle, which has a greater range of accuracy than a pistol.

Nashville: A case study

Sarah Shoop-Neumann is a mother who was close to Nashville, Tennessee’s Covenant School when the first shots were fired on March 27.

Her son, thankfully, was not in attendance that day.

“My son was not at the school. He was with my husband, so I knew that he was safe, thank God,” Shoop-Neumann said. “You see these things on the news, but when it’s your kid’s school you see them going through their classroom. I mean, you see them going through the rooms that you know your kid’s in. You’re watching them clear these spaces that your child plays in.”

She knows the circumstances of the shooting that day as many now do: An assailant armed with a pistol and two rifles. Officers also armed with rifles, something experts — and now Shoop-Neumann — believe was critical.

“They just went in without hesitation,” Shoop-Neumann said.

Three grade schoolers and three staff members were killed before officers reached the shooter and took them down. Shoop-Neumann said she believes lives were saved because of those officers’ actions — and their weapons.

“I wish that all of them would have been, but there absolutely were numerous lives saved,” she said.

Covenant School shooting video changed minds

The March shooting at Covenant School had a profound effect on many school law enforcement professionals.

On body-worn camera video released by Nashville police, officers are seen pushing their colleagues with rifles to the front of the stack approaching the shooter. One officer armed only with a pistol can be heard yelling, “rifle first,” over the fire alarm and gunfire inside the school.

One officer fired four rounds from a rifle at the shooter who was actively firing through a second-floor window at officers and staff members in the school parking lot. The shooter was taken out from a stand-off distance, according to the video.

Officers armed only with pistols had to close the distance between themselves and the shooter before firing.

“That video affirms the need for rifles,” Chief Ronald Applin, head of the Atlanta Public Schools police department, said. “Being able to address a threat from that distance that affirms it.”

None of the more than 100 Atlanta Public Schools police officers are currently qualified to use a patrol rifle, according to state records, a situation that Applin said, “is going to change.”

Applin said his department has seven rifles. He’s planning to issue them to sergeants first, then other mobile patrol officers. He does not envision issuing rifles to every officer working inside Atlanta schools.

“We didn’t want to come in looking like we’re the military,” Applin said. “But at the end of the day, I understand and recognize that is a tool that’s going to give our officers an advantage.”

Rifles can mean greater accuracy for police

Various states require different marksmanship measures to qualify to carry each gun type. Many states require officers qualify annually with their pistols at somewhere between 15 and 25 yards. Most pistols’ effective range in a real-world scenario is between 10 and 15 yards, according to police studies, including a 2010 report from the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee.

The effective range for a rifle is greater than 100 yards, even in the hands of an amateur. Rifle magazines also generally hold nearly twice as many rounds as a police pistol magazine.

As was the case at Covenant, school shooters are showing up with rifles. The Covenant shooter had two rifles and a pistol. If a school officer — the first on the scene — is armed only with a pistol, they’re outgunned, according to multiple law enforcement professionals.

Another Georgia school district department also changed its weapons plan after InvestigateTV asked why some school police departments rely only on pistols to defend against a potential active shooter.

Clayton County School Police Chief Reynard Walker said he intends to issue patrol rifles to officers this year.

“My goal is to make sure that they feel a little bit better going into a firefight prepared,” Walker said during a recent active shooter drill in which his officers were training only with pistols.

Atlanta schools are waiting on the proper equipment to secure the new rifles before issuing them to officers. Georgia regulations also require officers to qualify on a rifle before they can use one on the job.

Applin, the Atlanta schools chief, said prevention is the key. His department has many more tools and programs to stop a shooting before it would ever happen. The district has weapons detection systems, recently added police K9s, and is installing bullet-resistant film to school windows and doors keep a shooter from gaining access.

Atlanta Police have patrol rifles. Applin added: “there are several law enforcement jurisdictions likely to respond with officers who have patrol rifles. APSPD is not the only law enforcement agency that will respond to an active shooter event.”

Some districts have rifles, some don’t

InvestigateTV requested records from more than 30 school police departments, county sheriffs, and city police departments who have officers who routinely work in schools.

  • Multiple police and sheriffs reported 100% of their SROs are patrol rifle-certified, including individual departments in Idaho, New York, Michigan, Maine, Utah and Arkansas.
  • A handful of departments had a mixture of school-based officers with and without rifle certification, including two departments in North Carolina and Virginia.
  • At least three large metro school police departments reported not using patrol rifles for their police officers: Albuquerque, Atlanta and Indianapolis — though surrounding and municipal police who would respond in those cities may have rifles.
  • Some departments, particularly in Texas and Florida, did not provide any records or redacted all officer information, stating that public records laws allow them to keep that information confidential.

According to records from Atlanta area public schools, while some school police departments have all officers fully-armed with rifles, districts with school resource officers provided by municipal police departments and county sheriffs’ offices were more likely to have rifle training.

Private schools in some states are allowed to have armed security — including rifles. In Georgia, for example, some private schools hire off-duty police officers in uniform to serve as school security. Each private or parochial school makes its own decision on armed security, and those policies are not public record.

Note: For security reasons, InvestigateTV is not seeking to nor publishing school-specific data on rifle training.

Most departments and officers keep the rifles locked in their patrol cars, while some keep them in safes in the office designated for school resource officers. It’s up to each district.

“The chances of them being in a position to get to the rifle in a decent amount of time is going to be slim,” Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), said.

NASRO recommends the school resource officer to run toward the gunfire and immediately engage the shooter with whatever weapon the officer has. If the rifle is in the other direction, the officer should leave it, according to NASRO.

Some districts across the nation, Canady said, are using special sling bags that conceal a compact rifle that the officer can keep on their person.

InvestigateTV interviewed Canady inside Hoover High School in Alabama where he patrolled as a school resource officer until 2011.

“This hallway we’re in is at least 100 yards long from one direction to the other,” Canady explained. “Would I prefer to have a long gun in a situation here if I were faced with an active assailant? Absolutely. 100 %. And the thing that we also have to look at is that many of these active assailants are armed with a long gun.”

Patrol rifles have become standard issue for city police but not school officers

A 1997 shootout in North Hollywood forced a change in city police departments nationwide.

Two heavily armed bank robbers wounded 12 police officers and eight civilians. Los Angeles police (LAPD) were initially armed only with 9mm pistols while engaging the bank robbers, who were armed with multiple rifles. The gunmen also had special ammunition that could penetrate the officers’ soft body armor, and they themselves were also wearing heavy body armor the officers’ rounds could not penetrate.

Both bank robbers were eventually killed, but only after the LAPD SWAT team arrived and officers commandeered AR-15s from a local sporting goods shop.

The LAPD began arming patrol officers with rifles immediately following the shootout. Other departments nationwide followed suit so their officers wouldn’t be outgunned by criminals increasingly arming themselves with rifles.

“We don’t ever again in modern policing need a situation where bad guys like the ones in the North Hollywood bank robbery are better armed and better protected than the good guys,” Canady said.

Many officers give up their rifle qualification when assigned to schools

In Georgia, every department reviewed had officers with rifle qualification from their previous employers.

At the Atlanta Public Schools Police, 38% of officers who are not currently qualified to use a patrol rifle have lapsed certifications from other agencies.

Essentially, these officers gave up their rifles when they began protecting schools.

Sarah Shoop-Neumann and other mothers of children who survived the Covenant School shooting are fighting to keep rifles out of the hands of school shooters.

“We need more than damage mitigation,” she said. “We need prevention. Kids saw their friends dead and they’re nine years old. You don’t get those images out of your head.”

At the same time, their non-profit, Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows, is in favor of putting rifles in the hands of school police officers.

“[Officers] are risking their lives, so we need to at least make sure that they’re given the best chance at survival for that,” Shoop-Neumann said.

Olivia Oliver and Jamie Grey contributed to the national research and findings included in this report.

Behind the Investigation - Georgia Schools