SWAT in Littleton
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
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 killingscontinued. But the militarization of law enforcement seems to have
also resulted in police becoming bureaucratized--if not
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