By Mike Simmons
Newsflash – Police work is always changing. Wow, nobody knew that…of course, everyone knows that. With each new change in our culture, technology and communities, policing changes also.
Sometimes these changes come at a snail’s pace. Small, incremental changes tend to steer the minds of leaders bringing about improvements. However, sweeping reform often comes about as a result of a major incident. That is what happened on this day 23 years ago at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
On the morning of April 20, 1999, two young men – Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a shooting rampage outside the school first before moving inside and continuing their killing spree. The hour-long incident ended with the two men killing themselves. In all, 12 students, a teacher and two murderers died. Another 23 people were wounded.
Of course, the mass murders set off a barrage of debates, questions, finger-pointing, and guilt trips by families, friends, school authorities and law enforcement personnel. The previous clues that were later obvious had been treated in the same manner as information had been handled thousands of times before in hundreds of situations, but something had to change.
As soon as the shooting started on that fateful day, numerous 911 calls were made and law enforcement units were dispatched to the school, responding to a “shots fired” call. When they arrived, the officers did exactly as they were trained – they took up positions along the perimeter, setting up the scene for the negotiator and the SWAT team.
But this time it was different. Hostages were not being taken. As the officers dutifully held their positions, they could hear gunfire inside, which meant that kids were being killed…while the officers waited.
In the aftermath, the nation was shocked. The law enforcement community was also shocked. Suddenly, the tried-and-true procedure of setting a perimeter and waiting for the specially-trained officers to respond was not good enough. Officers had to be retrained to act immediately.
Some questions arose immediately: Should officers have access to high-powered weapons that put them on an even playing field with the bad guys? Should they wait for backup? How many officers should they wait for – two, three? Should they take initiative on their own and engage the shooter(s) by themselves, almost surely being outgunned?
Over the years, many changes in tactics occurred to answer these questions. Maybe the first four officers could enter as a team to seek out and engage the shooter(s). Maybe waiting for the arrival of four officers took too long. Maybe they should respond with three.
During part of the reform process, I was assigned as supervisor of school resource officers. We also spent hours trying to refigure our plans and way of thinking. I remember that, during our conversations, one officer – Shawn Dockery – simply looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “Sarge, I know that more officers are coming, and you can form whatever teams you want, but when my kids are being shot, I’m going in and finding the bad guy to make him stop.” Wow – Shawn spoke what many knew. At that moment, I realized that Shawn’s strategy would become the strategy of every police officer faced with that decision. After that meeting, I realized that, while planning approaches to a situation were still necessary, the point man was going to be the first officer on the scene. When he\she heard shooting, waiting would not be an option. The officer would act immediately, because every shot he\she heard was likely the end of another student’s life. No time to wait. Find the bad guy and neutralize him.
Twenty-three years and hundreds of mass shootings later, we still have questions – maybe more than ever. But every law enforcement officer knows that his or her job is to face the threat and stop it as soon as possible. We still have much to learn, but we are making progress.