Running toward danger

OREGON STATE Police Det. Elijah Preston holds his badge. Normally a gaming enforcement officer, Preston was one of the first responders to the Clackamas Town Center shooting in December.

Active shooter training set in The Dalles next week. See story.

The Dalles — Oregon State Police Det. Elijah Preston was driving by the Clackamas Town Center on I-205 last Dec. 11, when a call came over the police radio. There was a shooting in progress inside the mall.

He zipped off the freeway, parked his unmarked car in front of Barnes and Noble at the mall, threw on his bullet-proof vest, took his badge off his belt and pinned it to his vest, grabbed two extra magazines for his pistol, and ran inside.

Preston, who lives in The Dalles but works mostly out of Milwaukie in gaming enforcement, ended up being one of the first officers to respond to the shooting that saw two people killed and one wounded before the shooter took his own life.

He was keenly aware that he was not only dressed in plainclothes, but his own clothing — a black coat and black vest — matched that of the shooter, who was in black and wearing a white hockey facemask.

His “overwhelming drive,” he said, was to stop the threat “as soon as possible” and protect citizens. But he was also worried about his own safety since he was a gun-wielding person in civilian attire, despite wearing a police vest with a badge.

“It definitely put me at a higher risk,” he said of his clothing. “Not only am I in danger of being shot by the bad guy, but by my fellow officers.”

(In fact, shortly after he got there, he took off his black jacket to show the grey shirt beneath. He threw his coat on the ground and retrieved it later.)

In an active shooter situation, police are running toward danger when others are fleeing it.

“Obviously, there’s a tremendous risk involved in that, but through training it’s easier to take on some of these calculated risks,” said Preston.

For four days over the next week, some 80 area law officers will be getting daylong training in responding to “active-shooter” incidents. (See related story.)

Preston hasn’t taken another call like that in his 12-year career, which included three years on the state police SWAT team. On the SWAT Team, he’d responded to shooting-in-progress calls, but never at a public venue.

He also served a one-year tour of duty in 2005 with the National Guard in Iraq, where he was captain of a combat team of armored cavalry.

He said his combat service “absolutely” prepared him for entering the mall.

“Just living in a high stress environment, living in a combat zone for a year conducting combat missions.”

He also credited his police training.

“The state police really has a great training program and great training officers like Mark Jubitz and Kendra Raiser.”

As Preston went in the door at Barnes and Noble, he saw three police officers from other agencies that he didn’t know or recognize. He identified himself as a police officer.

Mindful of the risk to himself in plain clothes, he stayed with that same group of officers, called a “pod” in such situations, nearly the entire time he was at the mall. If they came across other officers, he made sure to stand close to his pod of uniformed officers.

He can’t disclose whether or not he heard any of the gunshots fired by the shooter, but he arrived to a scene of “complete chaos.” The fire alarm was blaring, “Mall patrons are running, people are yelling, the floor is littered with beverage and food items, shoes, cell phones. People ran out of their shoes, women’s shoes.”

Police streamed into the building as customers fled.

“Within 15 minutes they stopped entry of police officers because there were already about 30 of us. Other police officers arriving formed a perimeter around the doors of the mall,” he said.

“Probably within the first 15 minutes of being there I was notified by a deputy next to me that they had found who they believed to be the active shooter deceased,” Preston said.

“Then myself and the other officers spent the next hour doing cautious clears of every business in the mall, ensuring there were no other shooters and escorting people that were hiding to the exits.”

A “cautious clear” means “rather than being in a rush we are slowly going through rooms. The opposite would be dynamic entry, which is faster, with a greater sense of urgency.”

The groups they found in each store were “just terrified. People were crying, scared and confused.”

“Even hours after we were there, we still found people hiding,” he said.

“People were locked in storerooms, a lot of businesses pulled their cage down” and locked people in the back, he said.

As he escorted groups to exits, he didn’t ask them to hold their hands up, but he said, “It was not uncommon to see people coming out of the mall with their hands up.“

He didn’t talk to them much, “Just enough to tell them they needed to stay right next to me.”

While he tried to stick with other officers for his own safety, he did go solo a few times to escort a few groups of 20 to 30 people out.

He did have people ask if the shooter was dead, “and I didn’t answer directly. I would say ‘We are safe to go outside the mall right now.’”

He didn’t answer “mostly because at that point there still wasn’t 100 percent certainty that there was only one person.”

“Even though we had got information that the shooter was deceased it was still very high anxiety” because there might be another shooter in the mall, or there might have been a mall patron with a gun who might have fired his weapon to defend himself.

Preston stayed in the mall for at least an hour, “until the incident commander asked that all non-uniformed police come out.”

“When a call like that comes out, any police officer within range is going to head straight there. Even off-duty, if I would‘ve known I would‘ve been right in the middle of it,” he said.

And since he’s been in combat, it didn’t take long for him to calm down from the experience: “Probably as soon as I left the building,” he said.

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