The Virginia Tech Response

Yesterday, a tragedy of epic proportions occurred at Virginia Tech University. A shooter was able to wreak havoc on a quiet campus almost at will, resulting in the largest shooting death toll in U.S. history. Now, students, parents, but primarily the media, are looking for answers. But more than answers, the underlying theme at work here is "who is going to be held responsible--on whom can we place the blame?" My first response would be to blame the shooter, but the media does not want to hear that, especially since the coward took his own life. With blood in the water, the sharks are circling around the two people floating in the middle of that sea--the police chief and the college president.

That notwithstanding, let's get right to the point from the perspective of law enforcement. What happened at Virginia Tech was an anomaly, an act that no amount of training could have prevented. Most campus police departments, through no fault of the men and women that comprise that force, are a necessary evil. Granted, some are exceptional forces and highly trained. But for the most part, campus police are best kept out of sight and out of mind. To think that they are able to quickly take control of a situation such as a suicidal gunman is ludicrous. They are not prepared to handle much more than illegal parking, unruly drunken students, and minor thefts. Additionally, the college atmosphere is, to some extent, hostile toward law enforcement and authority types. My editor, Tim Dees, said it best in his blog, "College students and their professors are not folks who readily yield to authority figures without explanation, debate, and often defiance." That institutional posture impedes what needs to be quick reaction on the part of cops.

From a tactical perspective, drawing on my 35 years in the business as a SWAT/sniper team member, the time it takes to muster forces to confront an episode like this is considerable. Virginia Tech is located in a small town; we are not talking Washington, DC, or New York, where the available pool of cops is huge. Just getting cops to the area is problematic. When you factor into the equation that Virginia Tech has hundreds of acres and buildings, the logistics involved can be daunting.

Now we have the issue of command and control. Who establishes the command post and where? Once that (sometimes political) question is answered, just what do we have for resources, both in manpower and equipment? Given the size of the campus, air support for surveillance is critical, but my understanding is that the winds were such yesterday that choppers in particular were grounded. That takes away a huge intel source for a command post.

The next big hurdle to overcome is communication. Given that multiple jurisdictions are involved, is there a common channel? Most likely not, so that will be a huge issue in terms of deployment of manpower. Command posts are effective only to the extent that constant intel is provided and processed. Without that ingredient, the police action is still emanating from a reactive perspective, rather than proactive.

Next, add into that same equation the fact that there are multiple crime scenes, and you have really created a situation that even the most highly skilled SWAT teams would have a difficult time bringing under control. Now add this to your list of problems--victims in need of rescue and first aid, students, faculty, and workers coming and going, while for the most part unaware of what is transpiring. This is a recipe for disaster.

Identification of the subject is a huge question to answer at this point. Who are we looking for? Is it one person or several? We need clothing and physical descriptions. We cannot just run blindly into buildings without critical information like descriptions and weapons carried by the subject(s).

The bottom line is that as much as the media and public will want to excoriate someone for this terrible incident, there is no one to blame but the shooter himself. Law enforcement did what they always do best--they respond as quickly as they can with what resources they have. They face tremendous obstacles from both bad guys and sometimes the good guys. But, they do it without regard for their own safety, going into the belly of the beast with a singular purpose--to protect and save lives. To fault any of our front line guys and gals in this incident would be to dishonor their bravery and dedication. By their massive, quick response, they brought an end to a carnage that could have been much worse. They stopped a madman in the process of massacring innocents. I applaud you my brothers and sisters.