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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Columbine Effect: The SWAT Explosion

     SWAT team use is no longer a backup, last resort law enforcement measure. Since the mid-1990's, police administrators have significantly increased the number of paramilitary units, and have incorporated SWAT-like methods and a militaristic philosophy into routine patrol duty, order maintenance, and crowd control. The expanding role of SWAT team policing parallels the history of American spree killing. For example, after a deranged shooter masssacred 21 people inside a San Diego McDonald's in July 1984, the San Diego police department began putting more SWAT-trained officers on routine patrol. (The mass murderer was killed by a SWAT team sniper.) A pair of heavily armed men, during a February 1997 bank robbery and shootout, wounded ten Los Angeles police officers and seven civilians before they were killed by SWAT bullets. Following this event in North Hollywood, the police department issued 600 high-powered rifles to officers on regular patol.

     The Columbine High School killing spree on April 20, 1999 has been the single greatest catalyst to the militarization of routine policing in America. The Littleton, Colorado killing of 12 and wounding of 24 other students by a pair of their bullied schoolmates has provided the rationale for arming and training "front line" patrol officers for SWAT operations. Critics of the police response to the mass murder point out that SWAT teams didn't enter the school until 1:09 P.M., almost 30 minutes after the killers had taken their own lives, and almost two hours after the shooting had started. Had the first responders been trained in SWAT policing techniques and appropriately armed, they wouldn't have waited for the SWAT units while people inside the building were being shot.

     Prior to the Columbine shootings, law enforcement's approach to killing sprees of this nature involved a contain-and-wait strategy designed to prevent officers and bystanders from being killed and wounded in the crossfire. Under this policy, responding patrol officers set up perimeters to contain the situation until the arrival of SWAT teams. Following the Columbine tragedy, police agencies across the country developed "active shooter" programs in which responding patrol officers are trained to rush toward the gunfire. Rather than wait for a paramilitary unit, many police departments now employ "contact teams" comprising heavily armed patrol officers who band together to enter the buildings and confront the shooter or shooters as soon as possible.

     Notwithstanding police assault training, more police officers in the schools, metal detectors, and the like, there have been, since Columbine, one-hundred school-site shootings. High-powered weapons and SWAT team tactics have not kept young psychopaths and lone-wolf depressives from unleashing their fury on vulnerable students and teachers.   

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