Massacre at Virginia Tech

Based on events in Blacksburg, Virginia at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), the country is reeling from what is apparently the largest shooting massacre in this nation's history. Today's events surpass the 1991 shooting at Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas (23 killed) and the largest university-related shooting by sniper Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966 (16 killed). Initial reports list 33 students or faculty dead in a classroom of Norris Hall.

Hindsight is 20/20

Some will rush to judge the administration of the university and its police department, as well as local responding agencies--I will not. The gunman who is solely responsible for the death and destruction on this campus is apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Incidents like those at Jonesboro, Arkansas, the Beslan school siege and Columbine High School have opened our eyes to the threat and shown us that we must prepare. How then should we proceed?

The Schools

Whether local K-12, college or university, the school must have a plan. Depending on the circumstances, this plan might entail a lockdown or a police-supervised evacuation. Several years ago while serving on a local task force preparing schools in our jurisdiction for an armed intruder or actual shooting, the law enforcement planners were confronted with an administration that stated they couldn’t train due to budgetary constraints. We suggested not only staff training, but also drills run as frequently as the schools practiced fire and tornado drills. When confronted with this flawed logic, we pointed out that they had been practicing these other drills for years and yet had not ever experienced an actual incident. As we all know, a plan without practice is nothing more than words on paper and subject to chaos in an actual incident. School administrations must make planning and training a priority.

The Police

We have learned from our mistakes of the past. Our brothers at Columbine found that trainers and officers nationwide acknowledged that the standard lockdown-and-perimeter-and negotiate strategy would fail when dealing with suspects that had no desire to negotiate, as their sole aim was to kill, maim and terrorize. Since the suspect's goals could be met in such a short time span, we had to change our strategy to press the offense against the suspect to neutralize them should they still present a deadly threat. This means having to press the possibly suicidal suspect into killing themselves or drive them into a barricade situation where they could be neutralized or dealt with in a traditional barricade mode. Lead by training programs by the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), we learned of contact teams whose job is to seek out the suspect based on the sound of gunfire or other dynamic intelligence, and rescue teams that were designed to safely evacuate students and/or employees depending on the location.

The NTOA came up with the four-man diamond pattern, and their training programs focused on how to move through hallways and stairways and how to enter and clear rooms. Whether this method is used or a two- or three-man team if that is all that manpower allows, responding officers must be aggressive in their response. Time is of the essence and we must press the suspect.

Aggressive police response has stopped or drastically reduced the amount of damage a spree shooter can accomplish. In 2003, the Cleveland Police SWAT team wounded Case Western Reserve University shooter Biswanath Halder, who had smashed his way into the School of Management, killing one and wounding two others. Halder, who was carrying two pistols and 800 rounds of ammunition, could have killed and wounded countless students and faculty but for the quick action of the Cleveland SWAT officers, who hit the suspect several times. This building and its unique architecture nevertheless took seven hours to clear before Halder finally surrendered after his weapons malfunctioned.

When Nathan Gale attacked the band Pantera at a nightclub in Columbus, Ohio, killing its guitarist Darrell Abbott in 2004, it was the aggressive actions of Columbus Officer James Niggemeyer that stopped further bloodshed by killing the suspect with his 12 gauge patrol shotgun.

In 2006, an eighth grader, armed with what appeared to be a pistol, was shot and wounded by a Seminole County deputy sheriff and SWAT team member at a school in Florida. Although the pistol would turn out to be a lookalike airsoft pistol, the deputy's quick actions would have saved lives if the pistol had been real.

These incidents point out the value of preplanning and aggressive action on the part of law enforcement. They also point out the necessity of school systems planning and training in what to do should an incident be actually occurring or threatened. We must work together and we must prepare. The fallout of doing nothing or hiding our heads in the sand might be paid in lives. Today's events at Virginia Tech and the victims involved remind us once again that we must be ready! May God bless those students and faculty of today’s tragedy and may he bless us with the strength and the will to prepare!