Columbine changed everything in how law enforcement reacts to an active shooter situation, or at least, ostensibly it did. Three years after the April 20, 1999, mass shooting at Columbine High School, Texas developed the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center, housed at Texas State University. After the Newtown shooting in 2012 (commonly reference as the Sandy Hook shooting), the Federal Bureau of Investigation made ALERRT the national standard for active shooter training.
As it stands, more than 130,000 first responders from over 9,000 agencies have been trained by the ALERRT program. Authors Hunter Martaindale and J. Peter Blair of Texas State University, and who are the directors of the ALERRT Center, wrote a 2019 paper examining the evolution of the police response since Columbine for the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice.
Martaindale and Blair cite what an ALERRT response looks like: In 2018, a student opened fire at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, and within three minutes, officers engaged the student. Within that time, he still managed to kill 10 people and wound an additional 13 (in addition to one of the responding officers).
That seems like the right response after Columbine and with ALERRT training on active shooter responses, right? Engage the active shooter immediately upon arriving on the scene … because they are an active shooter.
By contrast, when Columbine happened, officers were trained to contain the scene until SWAT arrived, so the shooting happened at 11:19 a.m., a school resource officer engaged one of the shooters at 11:24 a.m., and then SWAT didn’t make entry until 12:06 p.m. In other words, that’s 47 critical minutes of, in this case, two active shooters roaming a school.
And even once SWAT had breached the school, it wasn’t until 2:40 p.m., nearly three and a half hours later, that SWAT reached the science wing of the school where Dave Sanders, a science teacher, was bleeding to death. It still wasn’t until 3:10 p.m. when paramedics reached Sanders. That’s extraordinary.
Martaindale and Blair explicitly point out what changed after Columbine: Instead of setting a perimeter as the patrol officers did at Columbine, “responding officers now were expected to stop the killing of innocent people, which required officers to quickly get to the attack scene and confront the shooter.”
ALERRT training specifically addresses how patrol officers, who are often responding to the scene from different departments and agencies (and therefore, might not have worked together before) would respond to an active shooter to eliminate the threat immediately. In other words, they form a min-SWAT team rather than waiting for the actual SWAT team.
But even that is not always practical, especially in these fast-moving. fluid active shooter situations (remember, the top example was a three-minute scenario), so Martaindale and Blair explained that ALERRT adopted to even smaller teams being authorized to engage the shooter instead of waiting for back-up, and then scaling back even more to a solo officer going in for the same reason of not waiting crucial minutes for those smaller teams to arrive on the scene and form.
“Many agencies weighed the increased risk to the responding officers against the potential increase in victims if officers were required to wait for a complete four- or five-person team and decided to authorize solo officers to enter active shooter locations,” the authors stated.
Let’s pause: Agencies “weighed the increased risk to the responding officers” and still weighed in favor of going in to stop the killing. Because being a law enforcement officer, at least in how we conceptualize the profession in our idolized collective minds, means accepting some level of risk! Again, there is now training in place by ALERRT and other organizations to help officers make that solo entry. And there are examples of solo officers ending a shooting rampage (in one case in 2016, the chief of police himself went in solo and stopped the shooting spree).
In short, Martaindale and Blair refer to this time (of about less than five minutes) as the Stop the Killing portion of the event. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Wild, too, that it has to be so explicitly spelled out, but here we are.
Now, let’s turn to some recent examples of catastrophic police failure in response to an active shooter. Sheriff Scott Israel was removed as Broward County Sheriff by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis after the Parkland shooting in 2018 left 17 students and teachers dead.
In that particular case, two officers were also criticized (and suspended) for delaying entry into the building, which was blamed on the department’s active-shooter policy saying deputies “may” go into the scene; that language was later changed to “shall.”
The most recent example of failure to engage the shooter immediately is the tragic shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, about two and a half hours southwest of the ALERRT training center. The May 24, 2022, shooting left 21 killed (19 of them children) and 17 injured.
Not surprisingly (the police lie, folks), the police have repeatedly changed their story of how they responded and/or engaged with the shooter. For instance, initially they said the shooter was engaged with prior to making entry into the building, and then today, May 26, the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter made it into the building “unobstructed.”
According to the police timeline (more grains of salt, please), the shooter wrecked his truck outside the school at 11:28 a.m., exited, shot at two people across the street, shot at the school building, and then entered an unlocked door at 11:40 a.m.
Officers arrived by 11:44 a.m. (which already seems like a slow response given shots were fired by 11:28 a.m.), were allegedly shot at, took cover, and then they waited for SWAT. That’s when at some point, the United States Board and Patrol SWAT team came to the classroom the shooter was barricaded in, eventually were able to gain entry, and they killed him.
An hour later. Or 40 minutes. Or 30 minutes. The timeline still isn’t clear, but what is is that the response wasn’t immediate, as training guidelines like ALERRT would recommend.
That’s abhorrent. No other way to put it. And the report from the AP that parents were literally begging officers to go in, and being arrested for disrupting law enforcement (and then one mom went in thereafter to get her kids), is gross beyond words.
If we are going to give police officers the power that comes with holding a gun and a badge in our name, then the least we can do is expect them to respond to an active shooter killing children at an elementary school.
But I know that’s optimistic. As I’ve previously written, per the United States Supreme Court, the police have no duty to protect you, and whether codified in law, or within training manuals, or in the culture itself, it seems clear that too many officers for comfort are not willing to actually do what the veneration of their profession commands: risking danger, up to and including sacrificing themselves, when the moment arises.