Columbine: The “Pearl Harbor” of Active Shooter Events
Evolutionary Event in Response Protocols
Just like the attack performed by Charles Whitman in Austin, Texas from “The Texas Tower” in 1966, the attack performed by Harris and Klebold in Littleton, Colorado at Columbine High School in 1999 had a long term major impact on law enforcement response protocols. In 1966, there were no existing SWAT teams and the Texas Tower incident helped justify the need, and eventual development of, special response teams. With the development of those teams, quite common by the 1970s across the country, the response of patrol officers at high risk events became reduced by policy: respond, set up a perimeter, feed intel, wait for SWAT. Things stayed that way, with refinements in perimeter set up, SWAT response, and the addition of mobile command posts, until 1999.
On April 20th, 1999, something happened that the American people had never experienced before. They saw an attack on a school, not as part of a Hollywood plot, but for real and live on national television. Columbine marked the first active shooter event I can find where helicopter news crews managed to broadcast the actions and pieces of response outside the school. The American public saw police officers and deputies taking cover behind police vehicles outside the school while gunshots could still be heard inside the school. When it was realized – and it didn’t take long – that those gunshots meant students were being shot while the law enforcement responders stayed in relative safety outside, the public outcry grew far and wide.
The Columbine attack drove the “active shooter response training” (ASR) movement that forced average patrol officers back into responding to high risk situations. No longer were those patrol officers going to respond, set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT. The protocol was changed in answer to a justified public outcry. Tactics were developed for officers to arrive and, if shots were heard, to make entry, move to the source of those shots and neutralize the shooter. ASR protocols even took into account the officers who may not have sufficient courage to move toward the sound of those shots; they were advised to man the radio outside.
Understand, the last paragraphs are NOT meant – in ANY way – to be criticism of the law enforcement response at Columbine. Those responding officers did exactly what the protocols and training provided to them required of them to do. But law enforcement, like everything else, is evolutionary. The way “business” is done changes gradually over time with the development of new equipment, better tactics, and in response to court decisions or insurance claims. The attack at Columbine and the news coverage thereof just happened to be a motivating factor for a major evolution in response.
The average officer went from never HAVING to enter a high risk situation to being REQUIRED to enter a high risk situation where innocents were being threatened. There are those who would argue that it should have always been thus; many of those making that argument never wore a badge or carried a gun. With Columbine 17 years behind us, the law enforcement profession today has ASR down pat and has streamlined the response protocols to minimize – as much as possible – response times to contact with the shooter. (In Virginia Tech, which we’ll analyze in a later article, two fully equipped SWAT teams were on the scene of the attack in under two minutes. You really can’t beat response times like that unless you can put an officer in every classroom every day.)