What Mass Shootings Mean for Good Police Work

In the weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre (please don't call it a tragedy), the concepts of service and leadership have been churning in my head. As the events have unfolded, we've discovered four school resource officers were ordered not to enter, but to hold outside and secure a perimeter.

I started my police career a couple of years before Columbine.  One of the first things said to me in the academy is that police are not military, but paramilitary.  We share some of the same characteristics (e.g. uniform, firearms, legal authority to use force), but we were civilian authority, not military.  And one of the points put into us at an early part of training was that when you had someone shooting inside a building, secure the area and wait for supervision, instructions, SWAT, etc.

That all changed on April 20, 1999.

Anyone who's served knows that when the shooting starts, the tunnel vision begins, and you instantly go back to your training.  The officers in Columbine did what they were trained to do: secure the scene and wait for specialized assistance.  And in the months and years after that, police all over the country knew that the training, or doctrine, if you will, must adjust to a new threat.  If you have someone actively shooting at civilians in an area, officers must immediately engage to stop him.  And as we look into a brave new world, we know we are at a disadvantage.

A fact of life and war is that the aggressor sets the rules. Some of the characteristics of active shooters:

1. They are knowledgable of the target area, while the responders may not be.  Klebold and Harris attended Columbine High School for years and knew its layout.  Omar Mateen scouted out the Pulse Nightclub in the weeks prior to his attack in 2016.  Syed Rizwan Farook worked at the San Bernardino County health department for five years prior to the 2015 attack.

2. Active shooters are motivated not by money, but by hatred or rage against perceived offenses.  The shooters in Columbine were the "outside" group.  Elliot Rodger, sometimes known as the "Virgin Killer," attacked sorority women for their rejection of his advances.  Micah Johnson's murder of five cops in Dallas was in response to perceived unjustified shootings of black men by police officers.

3. Escape may not be a goal.  In Columbine, both boys apparently planned to end their lives, as did Johnson in Dallas.  However, in Las Vegas, it appears that  Stephen Paddock planned to escape, but killed himself when he knew he would be captured.  This will make stopping and negotiating with the shooters unlikely to stop the killing, as was shown in Dallas and Orlando.

4. The aggressor selects his location to his advantage.  We've had active shooter situations before Columbine.  On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas and started shooting.  He murdered 13 and wounded 30 (and no, it was not with an AR-15 on "full semi-automatic" mode, but with a bolt action rifle).  In February 1997, Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Dechebal Matasareanu, equipped with body armor, attempted to rob a Bank of America in North Hollywood, initially overpowering the first responders.

As the threats have changed, so have our responses.  Since the turn of the century, police agencies all over the country have adapted a military style of clearing a building, as well as closing and engaging a shooter.  Some question if this training and guidance was countermanded in the Douglas High School shooting.  According to recent reports, a Broward County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) captain ordered four school resource officers to set up a perimeter, instead of engaging, which is what the BCSO states it trains its deputies to do and is in accordance with agency policy.

In the aftermath of Parkland, we as police must look at the events that unfolded last month.  It's incumbent to review the actions taken, improve on what was done well, and correct what has to be rectified.  Initial reaction, tactics, etc. are all subject to scrutiny.  One thing must also not be overlooked: as one friend and fellow sergeant said it, "if you're not willing to go in, turn in the badge."

I'll be the first to say a cop (or a soldier, for that matter) doesn't know how he will react until the bullets start flying.  But one thing is certain: you must have your mindset right.  I've read in unconfirmed internet sources that Deputy Peterson was not wearing body armor.  If that is correct, he was not ready for the worst case scenario, which is what he is paid to be prepared for.

Another point I will bring out goes back to the men at Columbine.  An academy classmate ran our agency's active shooter training a few years ago, and he made an insightful point about the officers responding to an active shooter: "I'm not going to second-guess them, but we all have a badge, and we entered this profession knowing what was expected of us.  And people have to know we will do what has to be done."  Four SROs followed the orders of a captain while there were kids being murdered.  They will have to live with their consciences, wondering from this point forward, "Should I have just said, 'Screw you, I've got to look myself in the mirror and there are kids in there'?"

Last week, I listened to a podcast from an organization called The Art of Manliness.  The host was interviewing Dale Dye, a retired Marine captain about his new book.  Dye mentioned another thing I have been pondering since.

On the day, at Quantico, Virginia, the day that I had been through Officer's Candidate School, and been though the basic school, and I was going to be commissioned, I remember that morning getting up and getting my dress uniform ready, to go down and fall into formation and be commissioned with the other candidates, and I was shaving and I looked myself in the mirror and said, "You know, when the day comes that you can't look your people in the eye and say, 'Follow me, it is necessary that we die'...when that day comes, it's the day you're not leading anymore, and you should quit."

It is a bit dramatic, but it is true.  Fellow peace officers, if the day comes that you cannot look yourself in the mirror and say, "I will risk life and career for the people I serve," it is time to turn in the badge.

Michael A. Thiac is a police patrol sergeant and a retired Army intelligence officer.  When not patrolling the streets, he can be found on A Cop's Watch.  

Image: Nick Gulotta via Flickr.