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SWAT in Littleton

Tags Big GovernmentThe Police StateInterventionism

05/11/1999James Bovard

Federal and Colorado officials are seeking to transform the April 20 disaster at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado into a law enforcement triumph. Attorney General Janet Reno praised the local police response as "extraordinary"--"a textbook" example of "how to do it the right way." President Clinton declared Saturday that "we look with admiration at the... the police officers who rushed to the scene to save lives."

However, the excruciatingly slow response by SWAT teams and other lawmen to the killings in progress turned a multiple homicide into a historic massacre. The pathetic excuses being offered vivify how law enforcement has no legal liability to people they fail to protect. The Colorado killings offer stark evidence why citizens cannot rely on government for their personal safety.

"Close enough for government work" is the motto for the defenders of the law enforcement response. Jefferson County deputy Neil Gardner, the first policeman to shoot and miss at the killers, said on NBC's Dateline: "I think with exchanging fire, it did allow some--some people that are--that were fleeing the scene to get out of the building. I always will have to live with the fact that, maybe if I could have dropped him, maybe it would have saved one or two more lives."

However, at the time of this gunfire exchange, the teens had apparently only killed two people. If Gardner had hit one of the teens, it might have unnerved his co-killer and led to a surrender - or an earlier suicide--and thus saved as many as 11 lives. Two other policemen arrived on the scene, fired at one of the killers--and missed.

Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone later explained: "We had initial people there right away, but we couldn't get in. We were way outgunned." This wasn't Beider-Meinhoff: this wasn't Abu Nidal's terrorist cliche: this was two relatively inexperienced teens with a few cheap firearms. If policemen on the scene actually felt outgunned, they could have quickly retrieved automatic weapons or other heavy-duty firearms from patrol cars.

Many local SWAT teams descended on the high school parking lot and vicinity after the shooting started. But none of the SWAT teams confronted the killers. Police spokesmen said the SWATs were not sent in "for fear that they might set off a new gunfight," as the New York Times reported. At least there was no danger of a "gunfight" when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were executing unarmed students.

Sheriff Stone justified the non-response: "We didn't want to have one SWAT team shooting another SWAT team." It seemingly never occurred to police not to send in all the SWAT teams. Apparently, the more police who respond to a crisis, the more incapable any policeman becomes of doing anything to stop the killings.

The police response also seemed paralyzed by concerns for "officer safety." Steve Davis, spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, said, "We had no idea who was a victim and who was a suspect. And a dead police officer would not be able to help anyone." But the "suspects" were brazenly walking around with sawed off shotguns and firing at will and were identified in the first few minutes as wearing trenchcoats.

Donn Kraemer of the Lakewood SWAT team explained: "If we went in and tried to take them and got shot, we would be part of the problem. We're supposed to bring order to chaos, not add to the chaos." Some police seem to see their role as historians--entering the building after the crime spree is over and carefully noting where each dead body lay. Is it necessary to have SWAT teams with the most advanced equipment and machine guns in order to distribute body bags after the carnage is over?

Law enforcement spokesmen are now bragging that they successfully contained the two teens in the school after the killing rampage started. Sheriff Stone proclaimed last Saturday that "early intervention" by the cops who shot at the killers and missed "saved one heck of a lot of kids' lives, by pinning these guys down [Harris and Klebold spent most of their time in the library, where they killed 10 people], by putting them on the defensive, instead of the offensive [except for the 13 murder victims], and subsequently probably led to their suicide."

Yet, one of the youths left a suicide note before the carnage began. SWAT teams may have become an impediment to public safety. There were probably plenty of individual policemen with the courage to enter the building and go after the shooters while the killings continued. But the militarization of law enforcement seems to have also resulted in police becoming bureaucratized--if not Dilbertized.

President Clinton, Attorney General Reno, and others are claiming that the Colorado tragedy proves the need for stricter gun control. The Washington Post used the tragedy to call for the confiscation of all handguns. But the more successful gun control is in disarming citizens, the more dependent people become on government officials for protection--protection that is often slow and unreliable.

When government ineptitude results in unnecessary killings--well, the survivors can write a letter to their congressman or state legislator. A federal appeals court declared in 1982, "There is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen." Citizens have no effective, enforceable right to police protection--and both police and criminals know this.

Is there anyone who has closely followed this tragedy who would trust the lives of their children to the Colorado SWAT teams? The police can be trusted to protect themselves. But what about the rest of us?


c) copyright 1999 James Bovard


James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including 2012’s Public Policy Hooligan, and 2006’s Attention Deficit Democracy. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications.

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