Shoot to Kill

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

The Peoria Police Department conducted its training in a department store that had gone out of business. Larry Layman and his fellow trainees wore and carried standard equipment, including bulletproof vests. The only special items employed in the exercise were simunitions, carried by the officers as well as by the trainers, and hockey-style helmets with clear-plastic visors. After lectures and videos explaining the new tactics, Layman and the three other officers in his contact team were sent into a "live" exercise. They were told that one or more gunmen were running rampant in a school. Layman was the team's point man when the trainer shouted "Go!"

"It was instant chaos," Layman recalls. He heard gunfire down the hall, and began moving quickly, almost running, toward it. A man shot him and then disappeared around a corner. Layman felt the pain in his arm, glanced at the splotch of red paint, and knew he'd have a bruise later. He kept jogging, making sure he didn't get too far ahead of his team. "The trainers told us we couldn't quit, even if we were hit," he said. "We had to keep going."

Layman stepped over people who were lying on the floor, playing wounded students. They moaned that they were hurt, clutched at his legs, and begged him to stop and help them. One man, playing a terrified but unhurt student, leaped from a doorway and grabbed him. Layman wrestled the man away and pushed him toward his trailing teammates, who in turn pushed the man behind them and told him to run back down the hallway to the exit. Another man leaped from a doorway, but this one fired at Layman's team. Others, with guns blazing, attacked from behind or sniped at the officers from doorways. When the contact team's blue-paint simunitions struck the attackers squarely on their vests or helmets, the gunmen stepped aside. They were out of the exercise.

One gunman stayed just ahead of Layman, shooting and then ducking around corners as Layman chased him and fired back. Often during his career Layman had considered switching to one of the high-powered semi-automatics that many younger officers now carry. Maybe a .45-caliber or a 9mm, maybe a fifteen-shot rapid-fire Glock. At that moment, however, he was glad to have his old .38, the six-shooter he had been carrying for twenty-six years. Younger policemen laughed at his weapon and called it an underpowered antique, but it felt like an old friend in his hands as he fired all six shots and reloaded on the run, again and again. "In the old days, if you had to shoot your gun, they taught you to fire in a burst of two shots and then assess," Layman says. "You'd pause. Then another burst of two, and assess again. In this new training they teach you that if you are going to shoot your gun, you empty it."

When he came upon the suspect holding the gun to the hostage's head, Layman's initial impulse was to drop his gun. "That's what you were always taught—drop the gun, just like on the TV shows," he says. "Now they teach you to shoot. They say if you don't shoot, the hostage is probably going to die anyway." Most of the gunman's body was shielded by the hostage, but Layman did not hesitate. He took the shot. Blue paint exploded against the gunman's helmet. "Only about a quarter of this bad guy's head was visible, but I hit it," Layman says, marveling. "I surprised myself. At the end of the chase I was able to hit a target. I was able to stay focused and just keep shooting."

His clean head shot ended the exercise. The whole thing had taken barely three minutes, but it had seemed like three hours to Layman. He accepted muted congratulations on his shot, and then sat with his contact team in a debriefing room. Layman was panting and exhausted. He was having trouble hearing in the aftermath of the gunfire. His muscles ached as his adrenaline level returned to normal. He was going to be sore all over, and black and blue where he'd been shot in the arms and legs. The trainers went over what Layman and his team had done well, and reviewed the instances in which they had been "killed." The trainers and the contact team talked for twenty minutes about what the officers could or should do differently in a live situation.

"Okay, you guys, good job," the officer overseeing the training finally said. "Now let's do it again."

Layman groaned. He grudgingly strapped his vest and helmet back on, and reloaded his gun. "You can't imagine the fatigue from a shoot-'em-up scenario like that," he says. A few minutes later he and his team were in a different part of the old department store, with a different layout and different shooters. This time they were the second team in, the rescue team. Their job was to follow the contact team, direct unhurt people toward a safe exit, and get the wounded out. "Triage is a big part of it," Layman says. "You have to make immediate decisions about who to take out, who to stop and help. It's tragic, but if several people are down, you go to the first one, and if that person is going to die, you go on to the next one."

A couple of nights later, nursing his aches and pains with a light beer and a cheap cigar, Layman confessed that the training unnerved him. "It's so different from what we've always been taught. It's contrary to what's become almost instinct for us," he told me. He said he's also uncertain whether all police officers can or should be put into rapid-response situations. "The first cops running into that building are going to be beat cops. If it's a school or an office building, it's probably going to be daytime during the week. The cops with the most seniority work days—the old cops, like me. A lot of older cops are just putting in their time until retirement. They don't sit around talking about police tactics. They talk about where they're going to live in Florida, or the fishing trips they're going to take in Wisconsin. I let myself get out of shape over the years, and there are other fat old doughnut-eating cops who are worse than me. I wouldn't want to go into a situation like Columbine with those guys, and I wouldn't blame another cop for not wanting to go in with me. It scares me."

At the same time, he says, he's glad he had the training. "Even the thought of it is terrifying, but as long as the nuts are out there, we have to prepare for them," he says. He would welcome more training, but doubts that his department, or any other, can adequately train every single police officer for a Columbine-style shooting. "The new training doesn't come close to what would be needed," he says. "To be really prepared for something like that, we would need to be trained almost weekly."

Two months after that rapid-response training session, Layman told me that it had helped motivate him to get into better shape. He began working out more, and went on a diet. He managed to lose twenty-five pounds. "The whole experience has been a real reminder of what cops are supposed to be able to do," he says. "I pray to God I'm never in a situation like that, but if I am, I want to be able to do my part."

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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