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Tragedy in Colorado

Police Under Fire in Quest to Study Columbine

Emergencies: Public lacks understanding, officials say. They defend actions of Littleton officers.

April 27, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Stung by criticism that rescuers may have been too slow to respond to the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., law enforcement officials nationwide said that they want to examine the tactics SWAT teams use in such emergencies, but are hamstrung by the public's misunderstanding of their mission.

Last week's school shooting has highlighted a growing schism between members of the public and the law enforcement community over how aggressively SWAT teams should move to stop such calamities--and at what risk.

The criticism has become so intense that the nation's leading provider of special weapons and tactics training put out a statement Monday defending police in Littleton for acting "responsibly, professionally and heroically."

The risks to SWAT team members at the scene were tremendous, and "a dead rescuer is no use to anyone," said Larry Glick, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Assn.

"From what I saw, it was an impossible situation," said LAPD Deputy Chief David Gascon, an assessment echoed by many officials who said police acted admirably in responding to the Columbine High School shootings.

May Have Lessons to Learn

Law enforcement authorities acknowledged that they may have lessons to learn from the rampage, but cautioned that they have no intention of appeasing the public desire for what they see as brazen John Wayne-style operations.

What many people don't realize, several police officials said, is that SWAT teams are not designed to sustain "collateral damage," as happens in military operations.

"The basic SWAT mission is to save lives and bring it to a conclusion with no injuries to innocent victims, police officers and if possible the suspects," Gascon said. "For those who don't know any better and think you can just go in there and take the suspects down, you can't."

Such explanations have done little to mollify critics, who have accused the police of waiting too cautiously on the perimeter of Columbine--armed, ready but largely immobile.

Angie Sanders is among them, questioning why her dying father, William "Dave" Sanders, waited hours in vain for help to arrive.

One Michigan man, writing to a newspaper in Denver, said only "incompetence or sheer cowardice" could explain the slow reaction. "Police are paid to do a job. Sometimes that involves getting shot at," Christopher R. Gonzalez wrote.

Denver resident Cecil H. Rigsby was even more blunt. "Where were the heroes? How many victims bled to death while the police waited to act?" he asked.

Several groups are already looking to answer those questions.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has sent officers to Littleton to see if they could gain any insights into emergency-response issues, and officers at the National Tactical Officers Assn. plan to do an examination of their own.

The NTOA, which does emergency police training around the country, has received about a dozen requests from departments to determine if their policies could handle such a disaster, Glick said. The group wants to look at issues such as better communication between neighboring departments responding to an emergency. "This was a real eye-opener," he said.

Educators said that, although they and police might differ in their priorities during an emergency, they are apt to defer to law enforcement.

"If I was a parent standing there [in Littleton] . . . I would be screaming 'Either go in or give me a gun and let me go in,' " said Brad Hughes of the Kentucky School Boards Assn., which started an aggressive school safety program after the 1997 shooting in West Paducah. "But we are always advising people . . . that the police are trained in this area and we have to listen to them."

Police did not secure the Littleton high school until more than four hours after the assault began around 11:40 a.m. one week ago, even as live television shots of the drama showed heavily armed SWAT-team members from Jefferson County poised outside the building.

But police said that image was misleading because the first SWAT members were inside the building within an hour of the first call, looking for bombs.

A Scene of Bedlam

"The public gets such a skewed version. It's not realistic," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Phil Hansen, a regional director of the NTOA. "It's easy to judge from a couple thousand miles away, but these [critics] weren't faced with an exceptionally difficult situation, the way the police were."

Jefferson County SWAT team members faced a scene of bedlam, as scores of students were fleeing the building in a mad dash for safety, police noted.

There were enough explosives on the scene to blow up much of the school. Because the suspects were students, they might easily have tried to blend into the mass of those trying to escape. And if police moved too quickly into the volatile situation, they risked not only losing the lives of officers, but also allowing the suspects to seize more police weaponry.

Within minutes of the first 911 call, 10 members of the Denver and Jefferson County SWAT details arrived on the scene, Denver Capt. Vince DiManna said in an interview. Many had been off-duty and arrived without their heavy-duty bulletproof vests and SWAT shields. Some didn't even have the soft-body armor all officers normally wear under their uniforms.

Half the officers went into an open classroom door and began sweeping the building for bombs, while the others raced to rescue two students. "We weren't going to let one of those students bleed to death while we watched," Denver Lt. Pat Phelan said.

*

Lichtblau reported from Washington and Lait from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin in Washington and Stephanie Simon in Littleton contributed to this story.

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