Shoot to Kill

In the post-Columbine world, police departments all over America are adopting new, no-nonsense SWAT-team tactics

His ears ringing from gunfire, his uniform damp with sweat, his breath labored and acrid-tasting from the gunpowder in the air, Officer Larry Layman ran heavily down a hallway toward an insistent pop-pop-pop. A gunman was running through a school shooting children, and Layman was chasing him. Layman rounded a corner, holding his gun in front of him with two stiff arms, and stopped dead. The gunman stood facing him, with an arm around a hostage's neck and a gun held to the hostage's head. "Drop your gun or I'll blow his head off!" the gunman screamed. Layman, a police officer for more than half his fifty years, had been trained always to drop his gun at a moment like this. Now he fired.

This was only a training exercise. But the point of this training is something radically new and different, and it is unsettling for Larry Layman, his fellow officers in Peoria, Illinois, and thousands of other law-enforcement officers across the country. Historically, the police in the United States have employed a standard response when confronted with armed suspects in schools, malls, banks, post offices, and other heavily populated buildings. The first officers to arrive never rushed in. Instead they set up perimeters and controlled the scene. They tried to contain the suspects, and called in a rigorously trained Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The SWAT team arrived, assumed positions to keep the suspects pinned down, and negotiated with them until they surrendered. SWAT teams stormed buildings only when necessary to save lives, such as when hostages were being executed one by one.

Today, however, police officers are setting aside traditional tactics. They are being taught to enter a building if they are the first to arrive at the scene, to chase the gunman, and to kill or disable him as quickly as possible. This sweeping change in police tactics—variously called rapid-response, emergency-response, or first-responder—is a direct result of the shootings that occurred at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20 of last year, which was the worst in a series of shootings in schools across the United States in the 1990s. Two students armed with bombs and guns invaded Columbine and wandered through the school, firing indiscriminately. Twelve students and a teacher died, and twenty-three other students were wounded. The shooters took their own lives.

The first 911 call from Columbine that day came at 11:19 a.m. Nearly all the victims were shot during the next seventeen minutes, according to a reconstruction released a year later by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. The report noted that a deputy sheriff reached the scene at 11:23, four minutes after the call. Many more officers—eventually nearly a thousand of them—quickly converged on the school. But the first policemen to go in—a five-man SWAT team, moving cautiously—did not enter the school until 12:06, forty-three minutes after the first officers had arrived. The two shooters killed themselves at 12:08. Some of the wounded were not brought out until after 3:00 p.m. The teacher, reportedly, died from loss of blood before the paramedics reached him.

Fifteen families of Columbine victims have filed lawsuits against Jefferson County, and several of those suits claim that lives could have been saved if the police had entered the school sooner. The consensus among law-enforcement authorities across the country is that Columbine was handled by the book—but that the book should be rewritten. The traditional police response was designed for dealing with trapped bank robbers, angry husbands, or disgruntled employees—not with disaffected teenagers running through a school killing as many people as possible.

Larry Glick, the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, says that Columbine almost immediately became a seminal event in the history of police training and tactics. Most of the nation's 17,000 police agencies, he says, especially the roughly 2,000 agencies with fifty or more officers, have instituted new rapid-response training programs in the past year. These programs are intended to train all police officers—not just SWAT teams—to respond swiftly and aggressively if they are among the first officers on the scene. Glick's association, with 37,000 members from 3,500 participating police agencies, teaches SWAT specialists to retrain their fellow officers, including everyday patrolmen like Larry Layman.

"The time line of the violence—from the time the shooting begins until it's over—is short," Glick says. "Traditional police responses just may not cut it." Typically, he says, an officer arrives on the scene within three or four minutes, but it takes thirty to sixty minutes to muster a SWAT team. Under the new training, the first four or five officers on a scene, no matter what their rank or experience, form a "contact team" and go in. "Their sole purpose is to move right to the shooter and stop him, using whatever force is necessary," Glick says. The contact team is supposed to pursue gunmen, pressure them to keep moving, and prevent them from taking over populated areas. (The Columbine killers seized the school library, where they killed ten and wounded twelve of their victims.)

The training simulates the horror and confusion of a Columbine-style shooting. Bombs explode. Water gushes from broken pipes and rains down from sprinkler systems. The lights go off. Trainers acting like madmen fire "simunitions"—nonlethal bullets that splatter paint on contact—at the trainees. Other trainers, acting as innocent bystanders or wounded victims, run toward the officers, pleading for help. Officers were traditionally trained to help the wounded and evacuate bystanders. Now they are taught to step over the wounded, push bystanders aside, and keep pursuing the shooters. In the past SWAT marksmen were expected to put a shooter down. Now every officer is instructed to "take the shot if you have it." Glick acknowledges that the fear of lawsuits is one factor behind the new tactics. "Do lawsuits drive training?" he says. "Absolutely. But the bottom line is that this training can save lives."

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Timothy Harper is the author of License to Steal: The Secret World of Wall Street and the Systematic Plundering of the American Investor (1999).

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