In the shadow of slaughter

One year since police responded to a shooter, NIU's 'communiversity' can serve as a model for campus security


     On that Thursday afternoon, Bill Cassidy, a communications professor, sat in his office on the first floor of Reavis Hall. What was unfolding as a quiet afternoon of e-mailing and advising on campus would prove to be deceiving; Cassidy's office, located approximately 50 meters away from Cole Hall, was positioned in the eye of a gunman's violent storm.

     Seated in the same chair he occupied on Feb. 14, 2008, Cassidy peered out his office window facing Cole Hall and described what he observed that afternoon, which would turn out to be the day of one of the deadliest university shootings in the nation's history.

     "We could see police around, you could see them bringing people out in stretchers — I did not see any blood or gore," says Cassidy, assistant professor of communication at Northern Illinois University (NIU), recalls. "We did not have any idea … something really bad had happened."

     In the months after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech, the two-hour killing spree throughout several buildings that claimed 32 lives and injured many others, law enforcement was able to review the incident and learn from mistakes made in responding.

     In contrast, after a former student opened fire at DeKalb, Illinois, the rapid police response, fluid public safety coordination and consistent preplanning serve as an example of how management was able to reduce the toll of harm in the wake of spontaneous violence.

Cooperative system in place

     On Feb. 14, 2008, 27-year-old NIU graduate Steve Kazmierczak, armed with three handguns and a shotgun, opened fire on a large geology class. In the end, 21 people were shot and five died in the lecture hall shooting at Cole Hall, situated in the heart of the NIU campus. The gunman ended the violence by turning the gun on himself. The cooperative public safety system in place at NIU, planning and a dose of luck combined to enable police, fire and EMS personnel to swiftly respond, secure the scene and ultimately treat and transport victims in enough time to save lives.

     Chiefs Bruce Harrison and Donald Grady of the DeKalb Fire Department and NIU Police Department respectively, cite the relationship between their agencies as a chief player in the successful response to the tragedy, which staff and students refer to as simply 2/14. Both men are quick to point out that the relationship is something they've been cultivating over time and through consistent effort.

     "You don't have the kind of relationships that will make a difference if you don't work on them," Grady says. The chiefs say they routinely meet, create joint incident action plans and have been able to build up a level of trust that is rarely seen between fire and police.

     "It's not just the police department doing one and then the fire department does their own — we do ours together, combined," Grady says. "We have what we call a 'communiversity' system here where the fire department, the convocation center, the athletic department, the police department, all of those groups get together and we work on building plans and operational relations together all the time."

     "We've gone beyond the typical relationship," emphasizes Harrison. He says the trust and rapport in his department's relationship with the NIU Police Department is not a result of the mass shooting, but that it's a cooperative system that's been in place for years, built because the two entities wanted to be a good servant to their communities.

     "It's not that we kind of say hello to one another, see each other and then maybe work an event together sometimes. Everything that we do is joint," Grady says.

What made the difference?

     In addition to the trust and close working relationship between fire and police, several other elements unique to NIU helped to save lives.

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