Sarah Peck was at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. in December 2012 when something on TV caught her attention. “I could see that there was a mass shooting being reported in Newtown, Connecticut,” she says of the incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 dead, including 6- and 7-year-olds.
“That was really upsetting to me because I have family who lived in Newtown,” she says, her voice cracking. “My sister was a teacher. I had nieces in the school system there. And I just thought, ‘Oh, my God, what is wrong with us that we can’t even keep our children safe from these kinds of attacks?’”
But she has served in war zones and witnessed the mass carnage wreaked by guns. “I’ve been in places where people are living among weapons of war,” she says. She had even been trained on how to use a gun as part of being a diplomat. But there was something about seeing these weapons used on U.S. soil that led to an epiphany.
“I needed to do something. Something tangible and real. Something that can actually save lives.”
So she returned to the law school from which she graduated in 1996 and was connected to the Public Health Advocacy Institute via law professor Margaret Woo. “I said mass shootings are a public health crisis, and they agreed,” Peck said about her initial meeting with the institute’s leadership.
She went on to co-found UnitedOnGuns, a nonpartisan initiative, and recently completed her first research project involving mayors who have suddenly been called upon to respond in the chaotic aftermath of a large-scale shooting incident.
Mark Gottlieb, a fellow Northeastern law school alum and executive director of the public health institute, and Emily Nink, policy associate, worked with Peck to produce the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook: A Resource for Mayors and City Managers.
It is believed to be the first research in the nation to guide mayors on exactly what they need to do in the aftermath of gunfire in their communities that claims multiple lives. The playbook was designed specifically for municipal leaders and is not available to the public.
But a separate protocol, a summary of the larger playbook, lays out seven priority areas where a mayor’s attention must turn in those crucial 24 hours after gunfire. Communication is at the top of the list.
“Your primary role during the response is as the ‘communicator-in-chief,’” it says. “The public will look to you for messaging about public safety, updates about the victims, referrals to mental health resources, and messages of unity and healing.”
“I asked him, ‘Who helped you? What organizations were there for you, and what did you need that you didn’t have?’” Peck says. “He said, ‘There are no protocols, no resources, nothing. You have to figure it out for yourself. If you were to come up with resources for mayors that would help them prepare and help them understand their role during the response, that would be a real help.’”
“And that’s just what we did,” Peck says.
Mayors are particularly well-suited for handling the aftermath of a multiple casualty incident involving firearms, says Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, and one of several City Hall leaders who participated in the research.
“The job of mayor is one of the few political jobs that’s both on the ground and also has to provide a vision for its community,” she says in an interview with News@Northeastern. “There aren’t many political positions like that.”
Whaley was asleep at home on Aug. 4, 2019, when she was awakened and told of a mass shooting in the commercial Oregon District of the city. Nine people later died and many others were injured.
The Northeastern playbook is “really helpful” to her and other municipal leaders who may one day find themselves trying to figure out what to do in an emergency. “I always hope that when one of these shootings happens that it will be the last one and it will spark action to solve a lot of this, but that doesn’t happen,” Whaley says.
Northeastern faculty served as advisers, including Matthew Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology; James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of criminology, law, and public policy; and Mary Harvey, founding director of Violence Transformed, an arts, public health, and social justice initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute.
In all, six cases were the focus of their project. They included the 2016 gunfire at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people. Interviewing the mayors who presided over the responses to the six incidents was an integral part of the project.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer remembers what happened on that day in 2016.
“I was called at 2 o’clock in the morning and notified there was a shooting at Pulse nightclub,” he says in an interview with News@Northeastern. “It had turned into a hostage situation and I was notified where they would be setting up the mobile command force.”
“In that instance, I thought, ‘What did I need to do?’ I knew that my job would be to be the primary communicator, and wanted to gather as much precise information as we could so that when the appropriate time came, we could convey that to the public and try to instill calm and let them know that we had it under control.”
The Northeastern research “should be required reading for every mayor,” Dyer says.