Brian Thiem: Within hours of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last month, I heard the cries of countless people telling how the police should respond to school shootings and how they could’ve done better. The voices came from the media, politicians (this includes those wearing police uniforms (usually with stars on the collars), academics, and half the population with social media accounts.
People asked me to condemn the deputies who staged outside because we all know (we’re all experts about how police should do policing), cops should immediately rush inside. Right?
Well, it’s not that simple.
I was a lieutenant with the Oakland Police Department and the commander of Special Operations (SWAT) in April 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School occurred. The next day, I talked to an old Army buddy who worked for a suburban Denver police department and was one of the responding SWAT officers. I visited him shortly thereafter and recall his frustration over having to wait outside the school while the carnage continued inside. But that was the standard operating procedure for SWAT teams at that time.
Police tactics, equipment, procedures, and training normally evolve in response to past failures. Back in the 1960’s, SWAT teams were being formed in cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles in response to criminal incidents that were beyond the ability of the average patrol officer armed with revolvers and occasional shotguns—incidents which too often left officers, and sometimes innocent citizens, dead. Rushing into bank robberies in progress sometimes resulted in forced hostage situations and unnecessary gunfights. But brave officers are supposed to rush in, right?
In the 1970s, departments began training officers at critical incidents to surround the area, contain it, and wait for SWAT, with their trained and properly equipped operators, snipers, and negotiators. When SWAT arrived, they would set up a command post, collected intelligence, and try to negotiate with the bad guys before using force. Shootings of cops, bad guys, and innocent bystanders dropped dramatically with these new tactics and training.
Those basic principles of contain, isolate, and negotiate proved successful for many years, but those tactics failed miserably at Columbine. When I returned from Colorado, I brainstormed the Columbine scenario with my fellow tactical commanders and SWAT sergeants and made a presentation at the next Bay Area Tactical Commanders meeting. I advocated sending SWAT officers into the scene immediately upon their arrival without establishing a perimeter, setting up a command post, gathering intel, or developing detailed plans. This was a radical concept in 1999, and the opposition was strong, especially from the San Francisco Field Office’s SWAT Team tactical commanders.
Nevertheless, we pushed forward. That summer, the OPD Tactical Operations Team hosted the Grass Valley SWAT competition and training, and we included a school shooting scenario for the 20-some SWAT teams from around the Western US. In the school shooting exercise, teams were required to move toward the gunfire as rapidly as possible, bypassing wounded civilians and those still in danger, rushing through danger areas without clearing them, and taking enormous personal risks to get to the shooters and stop the bloodshed. This was totally contrary to the way we’d been trained as police officers and SWAT cops: treat and evacuate wounded citizens, protect civilians still in danger, methodically search and secure rooms before moving past them, and contain suspects and offer them a chance to surrender before assaulting. However, by the end of that day, we saw what worked and what didn’t, and learned that our new tactical procedures succeeded, despite the enormous risk to the responders.
Although we’d like to think we were the first SWAT team to develop these new tactics, we later discovered similar movements were occurring around the nation, and soon, this was the standard operating procedure for what would be called Active Shooter Situations. But SWAT teams weren’t necessarily the solution to these situations.
Knowing that it would take too long for our part-time SWAT team to arrive and assemble, Oakland PD soon took this a step further and began training all officers in the department to respond to active shooter situations. The policy called for officers to enter in 3-officer teams, move toward the gunfire, and contain or neutralize the suspect or suspects the best they could with the weapons and tools they had. We established training for the entire department using paintball guns and Simunitions for realism, allowing officers to experience what it was like to shoot and be shot as they move rapidly toward armed adversaries.
As a former Army officer and police supervisor and commander, I know that merely establishing policy, especially when it deals with how to operate in tactical situations, without the resultant training and continuous refresher training, is a recipe for failure. When bullets start flying in combat, most soldiers (and police officers) will react the way they were trained. As a leader, I also know that if they fail, it is normally the fault of bad policy and poor training, not the individual soldier or police officer.
Maybe I was blessed to have worked with the finest men and women in the world at Oakland PD, but I rarely encountered an officer acting cowardly. To the contrary, in my role as a sergeant and lieutenant, I often had to hold them back to prevent them from rushing into danger unnecessarily or too quickly.
I have no doubt that if a school shooting had occurred on my watch, the first officer on the scene would wait for the next two to arrive, and the team would head toward the gunfire. They’d know there could be multiple shooters who might have superior weapons. They’d know there could be explosive booby traps that they’d never see in time as they rushed through the buildings to save lives. They’d know a shooter could ambush and gun them down as they pass and that their Kevlar vests wouldn’t stop a rifle bullet. Active shooter situations are dangerous—damn dangerous.
As I write this, it’s still unclear exactly why officers and deputies staged outside the school, but I suspect the fault lies more with failures in leadership, policy, and training than cowardice on the part of the officers. It’s easy for those who never faced a life-threatening situation to label others as cowards for not handling it the way Hollywood heroes do in the movies. It’s quite another to face a situation where gunshots are sounding, but you don’t know where they’re coming from and whether there’s one ill-trained teenage shooter or multiple skilled gunmen.
I hope that once all the facts come out, the blaming and political posturing will stop, and law enforcement agencies can learn from this, as we did with Columbine, and do whatever is necessary to respond better when (I’d like to say “if” but I’ve been a cop too long to be that optimistic) it happens the next time.