As more details of tragic shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas emerge, one disturbing thing now stands out: the apparently long, long time it took to end the threat to the children in the school.
For those of us who have had law enforcement training, the events in Uvalde fly directly in the face of what police have been taught since Columbine. Prior to that atrocity, the accepted thinking in law enforcement was to gather a sufficient team, enter the building carefully, and then methodically end any threats using negotiation if possible. This thinking was largely centered around hostage situations, which can go on for hours or even days. Because hostage-takers’ only leverage is the lives of those they’re holding, being slow and methodical was a good way to keep deaths to a minimum.
Columbine and 9/11 disabused us of that notion.
From “Comply To Survive” to “Let’s Roll.”
Columbine taught first-responders that active shooters have very different objectives. Instead of demanding concessions from authorities, the idea is usually to maximize the number of dead and wounded to gain as much fame as possible (this is a twisted version of the human instinct to want to be remembered after death, and to feel like our life had meaning), with no expectation of leaving the scene alive.
For airliners, 9/11 was a similar paradigm shift. Prior airline hostage situations usually ended up with something like an unexpected flight to Cuba or a tense runway standoff that only differed from other hostage situations in terms of location. The thinking prior to 9/11, was that complying with the hostage-takers was the best way to maximize survival, even if the situation could be traumatic and highly inconvenient. But, the 9/11 hijackers were much like the Columbine shooters, with no intention of their own survival.
The lessons learned from both 9/11 and Columbine were basically the same: Let’s roll.
With this new kind of threat, the best way to minimize loss of life is to act quickly and decisively, engaging the threat as soon as possible, regardless of personal risk. Like the Flight 93 passengers who defeated the terrorists and saved countless lives at the cost of their own, the job of a responding police officer (or one already on the scene) is to step up and deal with the threat immediately, regardless of personal risk.
The job requires an attitude and mindset that most people would find unacceptable. Survival alone can’t be your goal. Like the Jem’Hadar in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, if you’re the first officer there, you have to assume going in that you’re already dead, and that you’re going into battle to reclaim your life. The only way to do that is to prevail over the shooter(s), so you’ve got to do that job or expend your last breath trying.
The Era of the Suicidal Shooter
This completely selfless warrior mindset, this Bushido-like code of conduct, generally didn’t ask responding officers for that ultimate sacrifice in the 10 to 15 years after 9/11 and Columbine. Even weak and sometimes ineffectual armed opposition from police or armed civilians was usually sufficient to stop the threat. These early post-Columbine shooters didn’t intend to be killed by cops and would often kill themselves or surrender (usually the former) at the first sign of resistance.
I was told in a police academy that they’d probably just kill themselves, so it was a good idea to run on in and make that happen as quickly as possible in order to save lives.
Some People Don’t Have The Guts
Even with that in mind, we’ve sadly seen that some people just aren’t willing to take that much personal risk no matter how they were trained. After a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy failed to take action, many agencies changed their policies to say that responding personnel shall respond with force, rather than may respond with force. But policy changes can’t change personalities and characters, so we don’t know whether that kind of response will happen until the situation happens.
Mass Killers Adapt To Armed Resistance
Mass shooters, through their various online “communities” and the raw fame of past killers have adapted their tactics. More modern mass killers know that armed citizens, security personnel, and police officers are likely to respond quickly, so ending their shooting spree as soon as someone fires at them will mean seriously reduced body counts…and fame.
The manifesto and preparations of the recent Buffalo shooter are a great example of this. He knew he would be up against security personnel and possibly (though far less likely) an armed citizen. He prepared and chose his target accordingly. A relatively unprepared security guard actually shot the Buffalo killer, but he wore body armor and managed to win that fight and continue the murder spree until police arrived.
The Uvalde Shooter
The Uvalde school shooing happened a few days ago, so this is based on current reports that may later prove wrong or incomplete, but based on what we’ve seen, we’re looking at a continuation of the trend I describe above. The shooter thought through and planned his attack.
However, according to media reports — however accurate they may be — police reportedly didn’t try to enter the building immediately. Some reports indicate a delay of 30 minutes and possibly as much as an hour.
From the AP . . .
Frustrated onlookers urged police officers to charge into the Texas elementary school where a gunman’s rampage killed 19 children and two teachers, witnesses said Wednesday, as investigators worked to track the massacre that lasted upwards of 40 minutes and ended when the 18-year-old shooter was killed by a Border Patrol team.
“Go in there! Go in there!” nearby women shouted at the officers soon after the attack began, said Juan Carranza, 24, who saw the scene from outside his house, across the street from Robb Elementary School in the close-knit town of Uvalde. Carranza said the officers did not go in.
Javier Cazares, whose fourth grade daughter, Jacklyn Cazares, was killed in the attack, said he raced to the school when he heard about the shooting, arriving while police were still gathered outside the building.
Upset that police were not moving in, he raised the idea of charging into the school with several other bystanders.
“Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to,” he said. “More could have been done.”
“They were unprepared,” he added.
— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) May 26, 2022
Officials say [the shooter] “encountered” a school district security officer outside the school, though there were conflicting reports from authorities on whether the men exchanged gunfire. After running inside, he fired on two arriving Uvalde police officers who were outside the building, said Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Travis Considine. The police officers were injured.
After entering the school, Ramos charged into one classroom and began to kill.
The shooter eventually faced armed resistance, reportedly from an off-duty Border Patrol tactical unit agent who charged into the school. Gunfire was exchanged, the Border Patrol agent was wounded, but managed to kill the shooter.
The gunman in the Texas school rampage was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent who rushed to the scene without waiting for backup, a law enforcement official says. The agent was wounded but was able to walk out of the school. https://t.co/ibdVt0In5p
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 25, 2022
We don’t know yet why responding officers didn’t attempt to enter the school sooner. There are many aspects of what took place in Uvalde that haven’t been revealed as of this writing. It took days and weeks for what happened at Parkland to emerge.
For now, though, based on the current reports, it appears that responding officers didn’t follow long-established protocols for responding to school shootings and similar situations. The officers who were there that day will have a lot of questions to answer.