MORE THAN 200 active shooter events have occurred in the United States since 2000, averaging roughly one a month. No one can predict when or where the next one might happen. That’s why law enforcement agencies across the nation participate in realistic training simulations that include gunmen, real bullets, and fake blood.
For his ongoing series Run, Fight, Hide, Spike Johnsonshadowed cops, firefighters and other first responders participating in Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training in Texas. The gritty, black-and-white images resemble surveillance feed stills, with cops busting through doors, taking down shooters and carrying the victims to safety. The goal is to make it as real as possible. “They’re not joking around,” Johnson says. “It’s really serious.”
ALERRT is an FBI-endorsed program at Texas State University, training more than 105,000 police officers and 85,000 civilians since 2002, including Fort Hood responders Sergeants Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd. Former police and military officers teach classes around the country as well as on ALERRT’s 40-acre campus just outside of San Marcos. Trainees rush through mock offices, classrooms, and homes where they learn the best way to stop an attacker, treat the injured, and establish control of the perimeter. Props like dummy IEDs, severed mannequin limbs, and medical equipment add to the reality. Most simulations use rubber bullets, but some courses feature real ammunition. “The more realism we can inject into the training, the better they’re going to be prepared for the things they’re going to see and hear and smell and feel during the real deal,” says John Cornutt, assistant director of ALERRT.
Johnson learned about the program after working on a project about a group of amateur survivalists, preppers, and militia near Dallas. ALERRT felt like the professional side of emergency prep. “Rather than it being civilians that can be easily written off as extreme or paranoid it’s a legitimate national organization preparing for a similar event,” he says. He got permission to photograph ALERRT’s annual conference in San Marcos in November 2016, and a training session at the San Antonio Fire Academy in March.
He spent several hours at an ALERRT warehouse crouched on metal walkways above plywood rooms, watching as cops closed in on an active shooter below. The air hummed with intensity and raucous noise as police banged on doors, shouted at each other and the suspect, then unleashed a torrent of gunfire at a photograph representing the attacker. Johnson also documented a corresponding trade show, and listened to talks by survivors and victims’ families. “Everything’s overshadowed with this emotional reality,” he says.
Johnson captured everything with a Nikon FM2 camera and 35mm film. The images feel frenetic, dark, and almost dystopian. None of it is real, but for the officers involved, one day it could be.