Tag Archives: law enforcement tactics

“In law enforcement, we cannot have a cookie cutter solution”: Post-Columbine Changes to Law Enforcement Tactics

The quote in the title is indicative of the stance law enforcement has now adopted in a post-Columbine context. The statement was made by Sergeant AJ DeAndrea (Arvada Police Department), a SWAT member involved in Columbine and two other school shooting incidents in Colorado. (1) This blog will discuss the ways in which law enforcement changed its rescue priorities and training techniques to deal with school shootings following the Columbine incident. It could be said that these represent the ‘militarisation’ of police forces, where they adopt the cultural (values, styles) and organisational (tactics) aspects of the military. (2)

A noticeable element of the Columbine shooting was the criticism it provoked of law enforcement response. The law enforcement officers stationed outside Columbine went through the lengthy process of ‘securing the perimeter’ to stop the perpetrators escaping and of escorting students out after searching each one for weapons. Issues contended in the public sphere more generally were whether: teacher, William ‘Dave’ Sanders, who was shot in the chest and survived for four hours afterwards, could have been saved had medical teams been ‘allowed’ to enter the school; and a more expeditious law enforcement response could have prevented the bulk of the carnage, which took place in the library and resulted in the deaths of ten students. (3)

On the contrary, a report by Jefferson County provided a justification of sorts for the delayed response at Columbine. The SWAT officers had to form an ‘ad hoc’ team of police from different agencies with no previous contact. Other difficulties facing the teams were: incorrect Intel being provided, such as there being snipers, hostages and up to eight gunmen in the building; out-dated information about the building layout; most officers did not have their tactical equipment with them. Additionally, inside the school, officers faced hazardous conditions of flashing strobe lights, overflowing sprinklers, and fire alarms wailing. (4)

Since the confusion about building layout was something that hindered police response to Columbine, law enforcement tactical operations are now driven by knowledge about the environment in which a crisis is occurring, according to Sergeant DeAndrea. A useful technique in preparing law enforcers for potential school shooting attacks could be ‘tactical architecture,’ predicated on interpreting public spaces and their links to behaviour, an approach intended to aid operational policing. (5) Relating this to schools, it could allow law enforcers to instruct staff and students of ways to optimise survival if a shooting were to take place by highlighting escape points and places to hide.

Secondly, Sergeant DeAndrea explained that law enforcement training since Columbine has been honed into a single response led by SROs (see previous blog post for more details of their role in emergency management and response). Further to this, during an active shooter or hostage situation, the law enforcement rescue priorities have now changed to ‘hostages, civilians, cop, suspect.’ Sergeant AJ DeAndrea went on to clarify that hostages being held against their will on the threat of violence and civilians in an active shooter situation are the priorities for rescuing; the lives of cops comes below this and the life of the suspect is the least important factor, since the most important aspect of response is rescuing those in harm’s way.

[The blog post was put together using statements made during Sergeant DeAndrade’s presentation at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in 2013, further reading around the response to Columbine and scholarly discussions of law enforcement training. The next post will look at the differences to campus police at colleges and universities in the United States following school shootings.]

  • Statements from Sergeant DeAndrade were made during a presentation at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ held at Columbine High School in June 2013, organised by I Love U Guys.
  • For further information, see: Kraska, P. B. (2007) ‘Militarization and Policing – Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.’ Policing 1(4), 501-513.
  • These were criticisms often made in news media reports and letters to the editor. An extensive sample of these were analysed by the author as part of a separate research project.
  • Jefferson County Sheriff reports examined SWAT techniques, equipment and the critical incident reponse overall on the day of the shooting. See http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages for more information.
  • Jonescu, E. ‘Strategic and Tactical Architecture: An Instrument of Law Enforcement.’ In Bouttell, L. and S. Doran. Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary, page numbers needed.