Council talks mass shooter concern

Elizabeth City Council Retreat Priorities

Elizabeth City City Councilor Jeannie Young marks priority issues or projects in an exercise during City Council's retreat on Friday. Also shown is Mayor Bettie Parker (front), Councilor Billy Caudle (right) and in back, Councilor Kem Spence.


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, February 12, 2018

What would be the outcome if a mass shooter launched an attack in Elizabeth City?

The Elizabeth City City Council discussed that concern during its two-day retreat last week. Councilors agreed to study police staffing and equipment in the coming weeks — and at least two councilors supported the city buying officers “riot gear” and more automatic weaponry.

On both Thursday and Friday, Mayor Pro Tem Rickey King and First Ward Councilor Jeannie Young raised concerns that neither the public nor police were fully prepared for mass shootings. Notably, King is a retired Elizabeth City Police Department officer, while Young is the wife of retired chief police deputy John Young and mother of still-serving ECPD officer JD Young.

Young opened the discussion about public safety issues by asking whether Elizabeth City had fully planned for emergencies, noting officers had to respond to an unexpected, “horrific” escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in October.

“I think that we need some type of critical action plan — we may have one, if we do, I think that we probably need to look at it and add a lot of meat and potatoes to it,” Young said. Notably, the Elizabeth City Police Department work with Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management to coordinate responses to a range of dire events.

She continued by saying she was concerned about more than just another prison incident.

“We live in a world today where little things, some little issue, can really upset people, and the next thing you know, you've got someone shooting at a crowd,” Young said. “We just need to make sure as a city, if that would come to our door, we would be prepared with a plan.”

King warned that a single gunman could cause great harm, especially if he targeted major events like the NC Potato Festival or Elizabeth City State University's Homecoming.

“One man can take the whole city down, off of one building,” King said. “If someone gets on that building with an AR-15 and fires off one clip at Potato Fest, this city is shut completely down; you ain't going nowhere, you ain't moving nowhere, it's a done deal.”

Based on his experience in the ECPD, King also criticized the city for primarily outfitting officers with non-automatic weaponry, including police shotguns that hold few rounds.

“We need to have the proper equipment for the departments,” King said.

King and Young also raised concerns that ECPD officers didn't have their own “riot gear.”

Elizabeth City Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe Jr. wasn't present for the council's discussion last week – he doesn't generally attend council retreats – leaving only City Manager Rich Olson to address their concerns.

Olson said the city has a well-trained SWAT team that is often deployed around the region. It also borrows riot gear from the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at College of The Albemarle when needed, he said.

However, he suggested more police equipment won't be a cure-all for a mass shooting.

First of all, any mass casualty situation, whether it's a shooting in a school or in Las Vegas, there is nothing you can do about that,” Olson said, alluding to last year's shooting in Las Vegas where a man opened fire on a crowd and killed 58 people.

Some injuries or deaths may be unavoidable, he explained, continuing that “any time you have a mass shooting casualty, it's how long it takes you to control the scene.”

Olson also said recent reports he had seen of officers getting shot showed that their bullet-proof vests and ballistic helmets didn't protect them. 

Though reiterating the city had a SWAT team, he also suggested officers' main advantage is quickly responding in large numbers. During the escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, the city had almost two dozen officers there within 15 minutes. The ECPD can also count on sheriff's deputies, the State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies to quickly respond to major incidents, he noted.

Though not outright opposing more weaponry or equipment for police, Olson noted the city already has a large police department, relative to its population, and has spent about $2 million on it in the last three years. He cited major new investments as buying and renovating a new Public Safety Administration Building, buying new police and fire radios, and upgrades to the police firing range.

“I'm all for the public safety, but police and fire are not the only departments in the city that need help,” Olson said.

King and Young reiterated they at least wanted to see more officers with automatic weaponry, including several officers per shift.

At the recommendation of facilitator Julie Brenman, Olson and the council agreed to further discuss the matter during upcoming budget meetings.

While mass shootings have become a regular occurrence in the United States — 27 have already happened in 2018 nationwide, according to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive — published reports explain they account for a small fraction of overall gun deaths.