School Climate & Safety

Police Adopt ‘Rapid Response’ to Shootings

By Darcia Harris Bowman — April 04, 2001 8 min read
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At the first sounds of gunfire at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, Calif., last month, Agent Richard Agundez was up and running.

The policeman followed the noise to the east side of the school, radioing for backup as he went. But when he saw a teenager reloading a shotgun outside the administration building, Mr. Agundez didn’t wait for reinforcements. He fired on the gunman and chased him off the campus, continuing to shoot until the young man dropped his weapon and fell, wounded, in the road.

It was all over in less than 2 minutes. The alleged shooter, 18-year-old Granite Hills senior Jason Hoffman, is accused of injuring three students and two teachers. But police and other experts say the bloodshed would have been far greater if an armed officer hadn’t been there to respond quickly and decisively.

“The kid only got off a couple of shots,” said San Diego County Assistant Sheriff Thomas Zoll, whose department helped with Mr. Hoffman’s arrest. “But he had a .22- caliber, semiautomatic with him, too. He just never had a chance to use it.”

That’s the idea behind “rapid response,” a police tactic aimed at apprehending armed suspects in crowded buildings such as schools as quickly as possible. Born in the wake of the bloodiest schoolhouse shooting in U.S. history, the technique marks a dramatic shift in law enforcement that is prompting both praise and concern.

Under past practices, the first patrol officers on the scene at such an incident didn’t charge inside after a gunman. Their job was to secure the area and call in a specially trained team of officers to do the more dangerous work of negotiating with an armed suspect or— as a last resort—storming the building.

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris changed the rules when they descended on Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., two years ago this month armed with guns and explosives. The two teenagers roamed through the school, fatally wounding 12 other students and one teacher, injuring dozens of others, and finally taking their own lives—all before the first police officers entered the building, according to a report released a year later by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. (“Columbine Report Underscores Need To Share Data With Police,” May 24, 2000.)

Now, many experts believe police can no longer afford to wait.

“Since the 1960s, we’ve trained officers when responding to an active shooting to contain the suspects and, if they couldn’t do that in the early minutes, to wait for [Special Weapons and Tactics officers] because SWAT is better armed and better trained,” said Larry Glick, the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa., which trains police for rapid response. “Now, we believe officers need to deal differently with school shooters. These are incidents that must be handled by the first responding officers.”

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., agrees. He argues that the older command-and-control technique is no match for the video-game-style gun violence some of the nation’s schools have seen.

“Columbine was a watershed moment,” Mr. Stephens said. “It placed school and police officials on notice that this is the way these crises unfold on campus, and it shaped the [law-enforcement] response being used today. The bottom line is, this is a different approach for a different time.”

‘A Two-Edged Sword’

The March 22 shooting at Granite Hills High was not the first successful test of rapid response—nor was it the first shooting to rock San Diego County’s 22,000-student Grossmont Union High School District last month.

On March 5, 14-year-old Charles A. Williams allegedly opened fire in a restroom at the district’s Santana High School in Santee. At that time, an off-duty San Diego police officer was already in the building registering his daughter for classes. A San Diego sheriff’s deputy arrived 1 minute after the first 911 call, and the two officers immediately teamed up to search for the shooter as several more deputies arrived and entered the building, according to police reports.

Within 6 minutes after the first 911 call, officers had boxed the teenager into the restroom and ordered him to surrender his weapon. Fifteen people were shot that morning, two of them students who died. But police say Mr. Williams still had another eight rounds in his father’s .22-caliber revolver when they cornered him. (“Second High School Shooting Rocks Calif. District,” May 28, 2001.) “We would have had more deaths” if the boy had not been apprehended, Sheriff Zoll said.

Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Hoffman were arraigned March 26 in El Cajon Superior Court. Mr. Hoffman pleaded not guilty to several counts of attempted murder. Lawyers for Mr. Williams did not enter a plea, but announced they would challenge a California law that mandates he be tried as an adult.

For proponents of rapid response, the results last month in California speak for themselves—especially when compared with the way police handled Columbine High School.

The first emergency call from Columbine on April 20, 1999, came at 11:19 a.m., according to the sheriff’s department report. At about the same time, Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold, both Columbine seniors, were shooting their way into the school. All 13 of their slain victims were apparently gunned down in the next 16 minutes.

The first officers entered the building at 12:06 p.m.—just as the two gunmen were committing suicide in the school library, the investigation concluded. That was 43 minutes after the first deputies arrived on the scene. It was almost 3 p.m. before some of the injured, including a teacher wounded in the early minutes of the shooting rampage, were reached by rescue workers. The teacher died later that day.

By contrast, the San Diego-area police “did a lot of things right that we didn’t see in Columbine,” said Ralph Griffith, a vice president of the National Alliance of Safe Schools, a nonprofit consulting firm in Slanesville, W.Va.

“I watched the Columbine situation in real time and, like a lot of people, I was upset by the passive response from police,” Mr. Griffith said. “As we can see, we’re not going to be able to stop violence, but we can certainly manage it better and minimize deaths and injuries.”

But other law-enforcement experts defended the officers in Jefferson County, arguing that they did their best in extraordinary circumstances.

“Columbine was an aberration—pure and simple. There’s not one SWAT team that’s ever been faced with that before,” said John W. McNall, a former police officer and the president of Bowmac Software Inc., a security consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y. “Quite frankly, they did confront [the gunmen] and they did have rapid response, but throwing waves at Omaha Beach when you’re outgunned is not an acceptable strategy.”

Mr. McNall also warned against holding up rapid response as best practice, arguing that quickness is no substitute for caution in the face of potential violence.

“Even the folks who train monthly, who are the tactically most prepared for these situations, take a more deliberative approach,” he said. “Some departments are resisting rapid response, and with good reason. It’s a two-edged sword, but people will look at the last two incidents [in San Diego County] and that will be enough for them.”

Armed and Ready

The quick responses to the shootings in the Grossmont Union High School District were due in large part to the fact that armed officers were in the schools when the gunfire erupted.

It was a stroke of luck that a policeman happened to be at Santana High School, but Agent Agundez’s presence at Granite Hills High School was no coincidence. The El Cajon police officer was stationed full time on the campus after the Santana shooting. Before that, he had been splitting his watch between two high schools.

Not long ago, having armed officers regularly walking the halls of rural and suburban schools was almost unthinkable for many people. But after a string of school shootings in such communities in the late 1990s that culminated with Columbine, school administrators and parents started to embrace the idea.

“I encourage schools to have officers in their schools as much as possible,” said Bill J. Bond, the principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. Three students at his school died and five others were wounded in December 1997 when a 14-year-old opened fire into a circle of praying students.

“This closer relationship with law enforcement and having resource officers in the school has been very effective,” Mr. Bond said, “and I think it bore fruit at Granite Hills.”

Mr. Bond, who works on school safety issues for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., said the number of schools in Kentucky with armed officers on their campus rose dramatically after the shooting in West Paducah, from six to more than 80.

Some experts argue that police and schools are overreacting, and wasting precious law-enforcement resources in the process.

“In some schools, there is a real problem with violence, but the other 99 percent have no violence problem—including the schools where we’ve seen these freak incidents,” said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “People will simply fail to see that every resource is limited ... and it’s going to be poor people in violent neighborhoods lacking police protection as [officers] are shifted to mostly middle-class schools.”

Even if administrators choose not to have armed officers in their schools, experts say, they should work closely with local authorities. Everything from letting officers train in school buildings on weekends to having school staff members coached in basic police procedures can pave the wave for a smoother emergency response.

“Most educators are not used to being exposed to police tactics, armed officers with pointed guns giving loud commands and directives, individuals being shot, people being handcuffed,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. “A basic understanding of police response ... will help reduce the fear of the unknown and better prepare educators to understand what could potentially occur in a crisis situation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Police Adopt ‘Rapid Response’ to Shootings


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