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“Shots fired” at baseball practice

| Thursday, August 31, 2017

Slightly after 7 o’clock one overcast morning in mid-June, the U.S. Capitol Hill Police Communications Command Center heard two words broadcast from an unidentified female officer: “Shots fired.” It was the worst of any possible scenario for the center — not knowing who reported an active shooter, who was the intended target, its location nor the status of the officer and others. Thinking that the attack occurred upon the highest levels of congressional leadership, Capitol Hill Police initially deployed assets based on women assigned to protective details, beginning with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s home location. For several minutes SWAT teams had no clarity of the situation until the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department answered a flood of 911 emergency calls, then notified the Capitol Hill Police to coordinate a response.

An active shooter with an assault rifle stalked through an Alexandria City park to effect a long-range ambush on Republican members of congress and staff who practiced baseball in preparation for a charity game scheduled the following day against the Democrats at Nationals Park. The third-ranking House member, Majority Whip and Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, suffered severe lower body injuries while standing at second base. A staff assistant who coached the team received two bullets to his chest. Both police officers assigned to protect Scalise were shot below their waistlines that hobbled their efforts to rush towards the shooter to enter the short-range of their handguns and engage the attacker.

The carnage that morning exacted several weeks of intensive medical attention to stabilize the victims. It took many surgical procedures to repair damaged body functions — so much so that exactly one month to the day after the attack, Scalise was readmitted to intensive care after developing an infection from the latest of his many surgeries. The staff member a month removed from the attack received skin graphs on his chest where the bullets ripped his flesh. He too was scheduled for a surgical procedure to repair a nerve in his wrist. Fortunately, on a more positive note, both police officers thirty days after the attack were progressing through therapy so that they could walk without assistance.

At the time of the ambush on that mid-June morning, I was with the Democrats practicing baseball on a diamond at a Washington school. Our coach read a text message about the GOP attack and then called the team off the field. At first, one Louisiana Democrat thought the news must be a fake report. As other phones buzzed and chirped with alerts, the members quickly realized that their colleagues had been under siege.

The director of public safety at our field’s school appeared at our dugout and stationed two campus police vehicles near us. A small SUV the color and style a grandmother would drive, arrived. Two men who looked as though they were unemployed and should be loitering in front of a convenience store identified themselves as “intelligence” officers from the Capitol Hill Police. They instructed the team to shelter in place at a dugout while both spoke on their mobile phones.

Not more than 10 minutes past when a pickup truck arrived with four the Capitol Hill Police SWAT officers, who carried automatic rifles, were dressed in black and toted equipment around their heavily armored bodies. They secured the perimeter of our baseball field and waited for further instructions. Within a half hour they notified the congressional representatives that they could leave the area without any special security escort.

For me, that morning became another of unique moments in my more than three decades of helping train and coach senators and congressional representatives. Years ago on another practice field, I had witnessed the removal of a homeless person’s body from the brush next to our fence. However, that mid-June morning touched the Democrats more than any collegiality I had seen stretching back since prior to the start of the era of stalemate, bitterness and distrust that began in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s ascension as Speaker. For years this game was the only vestige of mutually respectful decorum from both sides of the political aisle. When the news broke that Republicans had been ambushed, our Democrats felt as though personally attacked, so much so that a Democratic Louisiana member rushed to the hospital to sit vigil while his fellow GOP Louisianan was in surgery.

Some — especially advocates for assault gun control who note that the slaughter of 6-year-olds in Sandyhook did not move the GOP to at least limit guns from those certified with mental problems through the Social Security Administration — question whether an attack on one will remain an attack on all in the minds of congressional representatives. Both teams came together at second base before the start of the game to huddle in prayer. During the pregame team lineup announcements, each team lined up across the diamond alternating places rather than standing from home plate on their respective base paths. The Democratic team, after winning the game 11-2, announced that the trophy would be given on loan to Scalise’s office until he returned to work. All of these unifying gestures may moderate attitudes on Capitol Hill or they may yet fade as another month ticks by while the victims struggle to return to normality.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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