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In The Raid Van: August 1999

By Capt. Tom Dresner

Evil Goes to School

In retrospect, it felt chillingly prophetic when I spoke of the rules of engagement that should guide the actions of tactical teams when responding to what are described as critical incidents, in the June SAR. In particular, I talked about the process versus the mission when trying to decide what the proper course of action is in what could be termed as “conventional” critical incidents. I talked about how it is counterproductive to contain and surround a hypothetical schoolyard when a “madman” is shooting students.

In the aftermath of Littleton, much has and will be written about why this happened. I do not intend to get into that here. SWAT teams exist not to determine why, but to act simply because. No city is immune. It is also not my intention to second guess the tactical teams that responded there that day, but merely to put forth some observations about this hot topic.

One thing is certain. The stakes have been raised. Unusual single incidents have a way of dominating tactical thinking, and administrative decision making. Look at what the North Hollywood bank robbers did with their machine gun rampage on February 28, 1997 for the patrol rifle programs of America’s police departments. Does every community face that kind of robbery some day? No. Will even a few? No. But the very randomness of murderous evil makes it necessary for some kind of preparation. The preparation need not come in the form of increased armament, or even the formation of tactical units in very small localities. Without proper education by the administrators of some police departments, what tends to happen is for there to be an emphasis on the tangible. Ergo: equipment. Usually in the form of high tech firearms, within the budget and philosophical framework of a given city that approves their purchase. But with no background in tactical thinking and methodical planning, the teams can end up as nothing more than well armed, well dressed police officers. They are not a competent tactical team.

This should not be any inference drawn that I have any of the responding Colorado units in mind when I write these words. I do not. I do not at the time of this writing know the timeline of what occurred, nor the command decision making involved.

I can only begin to imagine the nightmarish images of the death of children that they faced upon entering that building. I can tell you that every police officer in America, not just tactical officers wanted to be there to stop the killing.

Our team has engaged in discussions of this situation, and our response to it. The safety priorities that I outlined in the June issue of SAR are flexible enough for inclusion into a terrorist invasion of a high school, which is what this situation was. The terrorists were teenage students, but terrorists nonetheless. They enjoyed planning for and creating the terror they unleashed on Columbine.

Tactical teams are often compared to the military because of similarity of dress and weaponry. But that is generally where the similarity ends. One might want to think of engagement of terrorists with a military response, but what TAC officers faced that day was more difficult than any military operation could have been. There can be no acceptable casualty rate, there can be no innocents killed by the police in the resulting firefight. There must be deadly accuracy, with no error, and all of the tactical operators want to go home to their families too. This last sentence may steam some of the distinguished military veterans whose bravery is off the charts. But these police officers are training their whole careers for a tactical encounter that will likely last only seconds. They are under tremendous pressure from all sides to get it absolutely right. It is just not the same as a military engagement.

Add to this pressure the sprinklers going off, smoke and fire from pipe bombs, the knowledge of more unexploded pipe bombs liberally sprinkled around the school, hundreds of running students, (all potential suspects) and you have tactical officers who most likely train once a month with the exception of Denver, and all wondering how they could ever imagine a scenario like this. The SAS and GSG9 would find this a terrible challenge, much less the part time teams of most of America.

A tactical operational philosophy dedicated to safety prioritization can face the challenges posed by a situation like Columbine. The commitment to protect those who cannot protect themselves must come in the form of rapid deployment training so that a cadre of trained officers can get inside quickly and stop the threat. This must be planned for ahead of time. It cannot be decided by a group of overwhelmed commanders at some hastily contrived command post on scene.

The media is quick to search for and label heroes and villains, and to instigate and incite discord and blame, all without taking any real responsibility themselves. They seek out and find opposing viewpoints and orchestrate their disagreement in the name of “gathering news.” This they have done with the SWAT response at Littleton. As of the time of this writing, I do not have much more than the media perspective for the facts of the SWAT operations that day. Some tactical officers have been quoted as saying that a firefight would have made things worse. Quite possible.

Without making a judgement based on that which I do not know to be a true quote or accurate information, I will say that if true, it was a chance that needed to be taken. If safety prioritization is truly the operational philosophy of the responding police agency, then going in and confronting the problem is what must be done, even with all the doubts brought on by the conditions expressed above. Safety prioritization places the welfare of the hostages or those in mortal danger above the lives of the police officers. The only outcome worse than allowing the killing to go on unchallenged would be accidental shooting of innocent students by the police.

I only want to be on record as being in support of safety prioritization as a universal code of conduct for critical incidents by police departments, and as part of a comprehensive department wide philosophy. With safety prioritization as standard operating procedure, even a less than desirable outcome can be defended, because the agency intended to do that which is sometimes blurred in modern America: “The Right Thing.” It is the moral imperative that transcends all of the post incident bickering by those who claim to have all the [simple] answers to some of the most complex sociological problems on earth.


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