Law officials develop new tactics, plans

Posted 4/22/09

When two teens entered Columbine High School in April 1999 loaded with high-powered weaponry and a seemingly endless amount of ammunition, it was …

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Law officials develop new tactics, plans


When two teens entered Columbine High School in April 1999 loaded with high-powered weaponry and a seemingly endless amount of ammunition, it was clear that local police were not adequately prepared for what they were about to face.

In the aftermath, law enforcement agencies were heavily criticized and sometimes vilified by the public for what was perceived as a botched plan of action. But, in reality, the officers who responded did everything they were trained to do. They followed standard procedure in dealing with an active shooter, including engaging one of the gunmen outside the school after being fired upon.

In the decade that has passed since the tragedy, the face of school security has been so drastically altered that former procedures are virtually unrecognizable.

Permanent changes have reshaped communications systems, coordination plans, strategy and even police firepower, said Jacki Kelley, a public information officer for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office since January 1999.

It wasn’t until later in the day that Colorado residents realized the magnitude of the massacre. In all, 13 people, including one heroic teacher and coach, were killed in one of the deadliest rampages on a school campus in American history.

The two assailants, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, took their own lives roughly an hour after the attack was launched.

It was only in hindsight that the public realized that the response by local police was not as coordinated as it should have been.

First responding patrol officers had been trained to secure the perimeter of the scene and wait for SWAT to arrive before taking action, unless they or bystanders were faced with an imminent threat, as was the case with Columbine.

In fact, practically every agency in the country used the exact same strategy.

Reports from inside the school initially indicated that there might be between six and eight shooters, something police took into account when devising a plan.

Since April 20, 1999, law enforcement departments have spent countless hours and millions of dollars beefing up their protocols — and arsenals — for handling a situation in which a suspect is actively taking innocent lives, Kelley said.

“When it was over we said, ‘we will learn from Columbine. We will do it better,’” she said. “That’s the best way we can honor those lives that were lost that day.”

Many now are using RAID — or Rapid and Immediate Deployment — to reduce casualties and neutralize the threat immediately.

Essentially, if a shooter is walking around a school, mall or business firing at people, the first officers on scene are instructed to find, contain and, if necessary, kill the suspect, Kelley said.

“The simple act of responding and engaging typically stops the killing,” she said. “We are taking the focus away from those innocents to those that are more capable of engaging in a gunfight.”

Sgt. Jeff Egnor, supervisor of the school resource officer division of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said oftentimes, those shooters are “not there to negotiate, they are there to kill people.”

For the last 10 years, the sheriff’s office has teamed up with the Douglas County School District to address student safety in a more serious manner.

An armed school resource officer was placed in every high school. Surveillance cameras have been mounted throughout the interior and exterior of the buildings.

Students now have several avenues to anonymously report a threat, such as the new Text-a-Tip program that enables them to send a text message to police to report anything from drug deals to fights to a threat by a student.

The improved lines of communication, coupled with a heightened awareness and increased sense of responsibility among students, have actually stopped at least one potentially serious incident from happening at a Douglas County school, Egnor said, who declined to divulge further details.

Criminal penalties have been stiffened and more sophisticated weaponry has been introduced to routine patrol officers.

They now carry AR-15’s and other high caliber rifles in their vehicles to outgun any potential gunmen.

A high-profile bank robbery in North Hollywood in February 1997 also helped mandate the additional weapons and training that was so badly needed, Egnor said.

Because there were more than 900 officers from 34 departments at the Columbine scene, communication was nearly impossible.

Nearly every agency in Colorado, including the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, is now on a statewide radio system.

The events that unfolded at Columbine that day have been analyzed and scrutinized.

Leadership within the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has changed hands, but the majority of the officers who responded to the high school are still on the force.

“Our scars run pretty deep,” said Kelley, who was at the scene handling the incredible influx of local, national and international media. “We have a moral obligation to help others learn from Columbine and we have traveled the country and talked about what went well and what didn’t go well. That’s part of the burden we have to carry.”


“When it was over we said, ‘We will learn from Columbine. We will do it better.’ That’s the best way we can honor those lives that were lost that day.”

Jackie Kelley, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office

Schedule of events

April 19

Candlelight vigil at the Memorial in Clement Park, 7:30 p.m.; donations will be accepted on-site for ongoing maintenance costs.

April 20

Columbine Rededication on the west steps of Colorado State Capitol, 11 a.m.; will include a moment of silence, the reading of the names of the victims, and a lie-down, featuring 13 people lying down in a circle during the moment of silence, surrounded by 23 representing those injured.

A time to remember and reflect at the Clement Park Amphitheater, 5 p.m.

May 9

Columbine Community Day at Columbine High School, all day; developed so Columbine High School could give back to the community some of the love and support received after April 20, 1999. Proceeds will go to Craig Hospital.


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