Shoot to Kill

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

SWAT team members take aim in a Pittsburgh school hallway during a practice drill in 1999. (Gary Tramontina / AP)

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."

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."

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."