Shoot to Kill

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

The day after Columbine, municipal officials and police chiefs across the nation asked their SWAT team leaders, "If it had happened here, what would have been the result?" They received answers similar to the one that Sergeant Jeff Adams, a longtime SWAT team leader and trainer in Peoria, gave: "The same thing would have happened here." Adams and other trainers for Peoria's Special Response Team (which, he says, was renamed because "SWAT" emphasizes weapons) went through their own retraining last winter. In March they began passing along the new tactics to each of Peoria's 235 active officers. "Columbine was a wakeup call," Adams says.

Under the Peoria Police Department's new rapid-response protocol, the first officer on the scene of a Columbine-style shooting waits until three others arrive to form a contact team. Officers in a smaller group or alone would not have 360-degree coverage, Adams says, and Rambo-style freelancing would confuse communications and increase the chances of "blue on blue" casualties: police officers shooting each other. The contact team forms a diamond, with a point, two flanks, and a rear guard handling radio communications. The team enters the building and moves through it as quickly as possible; team members maintain their relative positions so that they can see and hear each other. In a large building a second team may go in, either to help track down the shooters or to rescue bystanders and the wounded.

Adams says that gunmen are less likely to fire at innocent bystanders if they are shooting at pursuing police officers. "We train them to move to the sound of gunfire," he says. "Shooting scenes are very chaotic and stressful. You experience sensory overload. Every time you hear a gunshot, assume someone has been wounded. Try to take ground, and isolate the shooter. If the shooter decides to commit suicide by police, we'll oblige. The person making the decision on how it will end is the bad guy. We're just reacting." Adams says, however, that "deadly force imperatives" have not changed for the Peoria police. "We teach that you should shoot what you know, not what you think you know. That man with a gun in his hand who steps out of a doorway may be a plainclothes police officer or a school security guard. Or maybe a teacher who brought a gun to school."

Neither trainees nor trainers doubt that the new tactics heighten the risks that police officers must accept in the line of duty. "Most officers fit into a rescue role better than an attack role," Adams acknowledges. His message to reluctant trainees in Peoria is grim: "You are a police officer. No one wants to do this. But you swore an oath of office. Your oath of office promises to serve and protect. Let's say it's your wife or children in there. What do you want me to do?" Adams has had to pull aside a couple of officers who were having difficulty with the training. "What you're seeing is terrible," he said to them. "That's why we've got to stop it."

To David Klinger, a former police officer who is now a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the unease caused by the new training is understandable. "It points up how most policemen don't ever think of using force, deadly force,"he says. "It's not something officers contemplate. But now they have to contemplate it. It goes against the doctrines that we've been teaching officers for a long time. It's not going to be easy. The answer is to train more, and to let officers know that ninety-nine percent of the time they should still wait, but that in some circumstances waiting is wrong."

So far rapid-response training has encountered little public opposition, but Klinger expects that will change the first time the police kill a suspect instead of capturing him, or the first time an officer firing at a suspect hits an innocent person instead. "We're going to have to come to the conclusion in our society that in some situations the police need to shoot people," he says. "Regardless of the outcome, we have to accept that, even knowing that mistakes are possible. It's an incredibly complex situation in an incredibly dynamic environment."

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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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