GOLDEN, Colo. – The first officers on the scene had never trained for what they found at Columbine High School: No hostages. No demands. Just killing.
In the hours that followed, the world watched in horror as the standard police procedure for dealing with shooting rampages proved tragically, heartbreakingly flawed on April 20, 1999.
Two officers exchanged fire with one of the teenage gunmen just outside the school door, then stopped – as they had been trained to do – to wait for a SWAT team. During the 45 minutes it took for the SWAT team to assemble and go in, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 10 of the 13 people they killed that day.
The killers committed suicide around the time the makeshift SWAT team finally entered. But the SWAT officers took several hours more to secure the place, moving methodically from room by room. One of the wounded, teacher Dave Sanders, slowly bled to death.
“It was really frustrating,” said Marjorie Lindholm, a grief counsellor and speaker at police training seminars. Lindholm was a 16-year-old student in a science classroom where two classmates used their T-shirts to try to stanch Sanders’ bleeding. “We were told ‘They’re on their way, they’re coming.”‘
Ten years later, Columbine has transformed the way police in the U.S. deal with shooting rampages.
After the tragedy, U.S. police forces developed “active-shooter” training. It calls for responding officers to rush toward gunfire and step over bodies and bleeding victims, if necessary, to stop the gunman – the active shooter – first.
Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, a patrol officer in the Denver suburb of Arvada, and now-retired sheriff’s Sgt. Grant Whitus, two of the SWAT team members who searched Columbine High School that day, now train police with the idea that a gunman, in a mass shooting, kills a person every 15 seconds.
“Based on what we had been through, we had decided that day that we would prepare, and that the lives lost at Columbine were not going to be in vain,” said DeAndrea, team leader of the Jefferson County Regional SWAT.
Across the United States, police say the strategy has saved lives time and again.
In North Carolina, active-shooter training became part of the state’s law enforcement academy curriculum in 2001. Last month, a rampage at a Carthage, N.C., nursing home that killed a nurse and seven helpless patients was cut short when 25-year-old Officer Justin Garner entered the place alone and wounded the gunman with a single shot. Garner had undergone active-shooter training.
“Fifteen years ago, if I heard about what that officer in North Carolina did, I would have said ‘What a fool, he violated every procedure that we knew about,”‘ said Steve Mitchell, program manager with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in Fairfax, Va. “It’s been a complete turnaround.”
For three decades before Columbine, law enforcement had followed a contain-and-wait strategy calculated to prevent officers and bystanders from getting killed: The first ordinary cops at the scene would set up a perimeter to contain the situation, and then wait for the experts – SWAT team members trained in military tactics and equipped with special protective gear and assault weapons – to go in and bring down the gunman.
That strategy and the creation of SWAT teams were prompted by the 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin, in which Charles Whitman climbed a clock tower and opened fire with a high-powered rifle, killing 14 people.
Columbine prompted the most sweeping changes in police tactics since then.
Police now employ so-called contact teams in which patrol officers from any jurisdiction band together to enter a building in formation to confront the gunman and shoot it out with him if necessary.
“Once we can turn his focus and change his thought plan, whatever his plan was to go in there, he can no longer just kill indiscriminately,” DeAndrea said. “He can’t actively continue to kill. He has to deal with law enforcement.”
SWAT teams go in after that, usually to make sure there are no other gunmen or to rescue hostages.
During the 2007 massacre that left 33 people dead at Virginia Tech, three of the first five officers who entered the classroom building where most of the victims died were patrol officers trained to deal with an active shooter, according to an official report on the tragedy.
The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had chained the three main entrances to the building but killed himself about a minute after officers used a shotgun to blast a deadbolt to get in, the report said.
Earlier this month, police tactics came under scrutiny after a gunman killed 13 people and committed suicide at an immigrant centre in Binghamton, N.Y. Police arrived within three minutes of the first call but held back. It took 43 minutes for a SWAT team to enter.
Police defended their handling of the tragedy, saying that by the time they arrived the gunfire had stopped, and because they believed there was no active shooter in the building, they decided to wait for the SWAT team.
“We definitively can say nobody was shot after police arrival, and nobody who had been shot could have been saved even if the police had walked in the door within the first minute,” said District Attorney Gerald Mollen.
In another change prompted by Columbine, many SWAT teams have armed medics and rescue teams trained to drag the wounded out under fire.
There was no such regular training before Columbine. It took SWAT team members 2 1/2 hours after entering the building to reach Sanders, the wounded teacher. Whitus and other SWAT officers tried to wheel Sanders out of the classroom on an office chair. Whitus was holding bandages to Sanders’ wounds when he died.
“We would have given up everything to change the course of events inside that school that day,” Whitus said. “What America doesn’t understand is that everything we could do … that day and save lives was done. Law enforcement as a whole has just gotten much better at it today.”