Echoes of Columbine: 12 Killed, Dozens Wounded at Colorado Movie Theater


A suspect is in police custody, and officers are investigating whether there was a second shooter. After Columbine, police changed their protocol for responding to mass casualty attacks.

A man wearing body armor and a gas mask began shooting patrons attending a late-night screening of The Dark Night Rises in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring dozens more, according to reports from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Hundreds of police officers were called to the scene. A suspect has been arrested and is in police custody. Law enforcement is still trying to determine if there was a second gunman at the scene.

The death toll, the premeditated nature of the attack, and the fact that it happened in a Colorado suburb brings to mind the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Twelve students and one teacher were murdered in that awful incident.

Information about how police responded to today's shooting has yet to emerge. But back in 2000, Tim Harper wrote a piece for The Atlantic reporting that police in Colorado and elsewhere in the United States were changing their training and protocol for mass shootings in public places.

An excerpt from the piece:

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. 

This part of the Harper story is also worth highlighting:

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."

The rest is here.

As reports of casualties come in, The Atlantic will continue to update this post.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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