FROM THE CONTROL BOOTH
By Steve Tracy I Editorial director
Times have changed. Police work has changed.
I clearly remember driving to work after the Columbine shooting occurred. Despite living several states away from Colorado, a local radio show host was blabbering on with his uneducated drivel about how the cops should have handled things. Typical of such know-it-alls, he offered up plenty of ways to tell us how to do our jobs, despite having no personal knowledge to back up his ideas or citing anyone with reasonable credentials to support his crazy rant. I knew the broadcaster couldn’t hear me, but that didn’t stop me from yelling at my car’s radio. I think most officers have had these one-sided arguments with their own radios from time to time.
Incidents similar to Columbine occurred during previous decades, but those shootings did not have the constant television news coverage that 1999 gave us. Video of students being hustled out of the school and ambulances, fire trucks, and squad cars surrounding the premise, made for engrossing images on the screen. Everyone saw the news coverage and because of the general public’s misunderstanding of police procedure and policy, everyone had an opinion. Oftentimes we, the police, stand fast with our way of doing things because our procedures have stood the test of time and the trials of actuality.
But, Columbine was different. The heat came down on law enforcement and our own desire to do things right caused police departments nationwide to re-evaluate how our response could be improved.
There was a sea change that rolled through the United States law enforcement community concerning how an active shooter scenario would be tackled. Rapid response was the initial answer. In retrospect, our law enforcement community deserves credit for how fast we evolved from the previous concept of “secure the perimeter and call for SWAT” to patrol officers entering the scene almost immediately upon arrival and “running toward the sound of gunfire.”
Of course, there was the typical cops’ dry humor with lines like, “We’re all getting raises since they changed our job descriptions, right?” But despite the joking, police officers throughout the land took on the greater responsibility and the greater risk to their own lives and began training to run toward the gunfire. “More risk, same pay,” we said with a grin on our faces.
Active shooter response has continued to evolve to where a single officer may be the only one to engage a threat. Time spent waiting to confront an active shooter is time that lives are being lost. We’ve gone from waiting for SWAT to treating an active shooter like a “man with a gun call.” It has turned into a “man with a gun who is actually shooting the gun at people” call.
Looking at these kinds of incidents, including Columbine and the most recent active shooter events, we see that the most likely outcome of the police confronting a shooter is that the shooter commits suicide or gives up. There is also the result where the police shoot and kill the murderous offender.
It used to be that specialized police units like SWAT were the ones patrol units called for help. They still are for barricaded subjects and other situations, but more and more, patrol officers are the ones taking on immediate life saving duties.
There’s a meme out there in cyberspace that shows Andy Griffith’s four-door cruiser with a red gumball light on top. Below that photo is picture of a Lenco BearCat with “POLICE” emblazoned on its side. The caption asks, “When did we go from this…to this?”
The answer would be another meme with a photo of Otis, Mayberry’s town drunk who would lock himself up in Andy’s jail. Below that photo would be a picture taken from a news helicopter of Columbine High School on that fateful day in 1999, or perhaps the Twin Towers burning, or a picture of riots with Molotov cocktails being thrown. The caption would read, “When we went from this…to this.”
Times have changed. Police work has changed. We’ve changed. PM