The tragic history of police responding too late to active shooters
Confusion, chaos and wrong information appear to have contributed to law enforcement’s delay in stopping the gunman at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
The gunman spent more than an hour inside the school while police waited outside, authorities say. This was because the incident commander, school district police chief Pete Arredondo, treated the scene as a barricaded-person situation rather than as an active shooter situation.
Details of exactly what went wrong are still hazy as the investigation is ongoing.
Law enforcement experts say what happened in Uvalde is reminiscent of what occurred in prior mass shootings, including the attack at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
As shown by the Uvalde shooting and others before it, police are still making tragic missteps in the most critical moments of active shooter situations — regardless of training.
“Columbine changed everything”
When two students attacked Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, cops were taught at the time to surround the building and create a perimeter, while tending to the wounded. Students were inside the school for hours, some injured, as they waited to be rescued by members of law enforcement.
Three weeks after the Columbine shooting, The Washington Post reported: “Decisions made at a hastily assembled command post had excruciating consequences. Following instructions, police moved methodically through the building, evacuating students instead of racing through the corridors in search of the gunmen. But that meant that hours would pass before SWAT teams reached a critically wounded teacher on the second floor.”
The attack at Columbine High School was a tragic impetus for law enforcement to review what went wrong and determine how to do better in the future. In the 23 years since Columbine, law enforcement agencies have trained much differently.
“Columbine changed everything,” Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York City Police Department detective sergeant, told NPR. “When you have an active shooter, you have to end the threat. Because if you don’t, the person continues on killing.”
Following Columbine, police largely adopted a strategy that “calls for a four-person team to advance in a diamond-shaped wedge,” according to a 2009 review of actions taken by police in a report on the website Slate. A solo officer is also trained to potentially go in alone.
The report, written by Dave Cullen, who later wrote Columbine, an examination of the Columbine High School massacre, stated that police had since been “trained to move toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter. Their goal is to stop him at all costs. They will walk past a dying child if they have to, just to prevent the shooter from killing more.”
Cullen went on to say that this protocol has worked. During the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, he wrote, “it probably saved dozens of lives.”
In the years since, training has continued to evolve in response to the most recent school shooting.
“There’s been a very strong movement in law enforcement training for law enforcement to go in as a solo response. And what that means is an officer goes in and stops the threat to stop the killing from occurring,” said Lisa Dadio, a senior lecturer and the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven. She is a retired police lieutenant from the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut.
Though this may be the standard now, instances have shown that fear may get the better of responding officers.
Like in Uvalde, the same issue arose in Parkland, Florida, during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A commission report analyzing the 2018 shooting found that several officers didn’t go in immediately when they arrived at the school.
Scot Peterson, the armed school resource officer deputy on scene at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, most famously didn’t go inside when he initially heard gunfire.
In the months following the shooting, he took much of the blame for not stopping the gunman sooner. But the report found that several other deputies also didn’t respond immediately and rush into the school to stop the shooter.
Police all train differently — creating confusion
It’s unclear how exactly Uvalde police were trained.
A New York Times report found that in August 2020, officers from five law enforcement agencies gathered in Uvalde to role-play and train on how to stop a shooter. It was at the same time school officials were updating security protocols and hiring more officers into the school district’s police department.
This still didn’t stop the outcome on May 24.
Dadio said she wanted to withhold judgment on what went wrong in Uvalde until all the facts are known.
The public does know that several law enforcement agencies responded to the school that day, including the school district’s police department, U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Marshals Service. In Dadio’s experience, she knows that this kind of response can create an even more chaotic working environment for responders. She has seen it now in Uvalde, in Florida (during the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting) and in Las Vegas (during the attack on the Route 91 Harvest music festival a year later).
A mass shooting “involves multiple agencies coming together. So you’re dealing with different training, you’re dealing with different responses, and of who’s in charge. So it’s massive chaos,” she told NPR. “And at the same time, you have people that are injured, that are dying.”
How officers respond will always be different as long as different agencies across the U.S. ultimately follow different training methods.
“There needs to be national standards or universal training for situations just like these,” Giacalone said. Recommended national standards do exist, but they are still just a suggestion.
“We need to make it mandatory. Basically, you have 18,000 or so police agencies that are pretty much doing all sorts of stuff,” he said. “If we are looking to improve policing, we need to have a better understanding of what they’re actually teaching to the police.”
The most up-to-date intelligence is needed
An important part of active shooter drills for police is learning how to organize a chain of command amid chaos, Giacalone said.
“It’s about the unifying of command. It’s about having an unseen coordinator. It’s about somebody dictating what has to go on inside and when somebody has to go on dealing with things outside,” he said.
This was clearly a missing piece in Uvalde, Giacalone said.
Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said during a news conference Thursday that 911 calls from inside Robb Elementary School were being routed to the Uvalde Police Department, not the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department. That ultimately contributed to miscommunication on the day of the shooting, Gutierrez said.
As reports have indicated, the school district’s police chief believed that there was no longer an active threat and that the situation at the school was a barricaded-suspect situation. This was while multiple students called 911 reporting injured children.
“I do understand that during a chaotic situation that mistakes can be made,” Giacalone said. “But unfortunately, this could have been the worst mistake to make, ever.”
It’s a heartbreaking problem that came up during the Columbine and Parkland shootings.
In that Washington Post article on Columbine, the paper reported, “Dozens of interviews with officers and others on the scene make it clear that police faced a range of critical problems, from the lack of a common radio channel to the quandary of how to handle hundreds of terrified students.”
In Parkland, several things went terribly wrong. Part of the problem was initial information given to other officers by Peterson, the school resource officer deputy. Despite his training throughout his career, Peterson told deputies to remain at least 500 feet away from the building under attack. He also told officers he was unsure if gunshots were coming from inside or outside the school.
Other painful mistakes have been made.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School occurred just outside the Coral Springs Police Department’s jurisdiction, yet the 911 dispatch center didn’t make any officers aware of the shooting for over four minutes after receiving the first 911 call, according to the commission report analyzing the shooting.
Additionally, officers reported their radios not working at all, causing many not to respond urgently when they heard gunshots.
Once a command post was established in the early stages of the response at the school, everyone from city officials to school board members to other officials were unnecessarily gathered there.
“Their presence interfered with command-and-control operations,” the report found. There was also “abundant confusion over the location of the command post and the role of the staging area. This stemmed from an absence of command and control and an ineffective radio system.”
These mistakes and communication problems go beyond just school shootings.
After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, a review showed that fire and emergency medical service personnel were prohibited from responding to the scene by their chain of command, delaying treatment for the injured.
Similar problems popped up in Las Vegas during the attack on the Route 91 Harvest music festival. That night, police officers were on the grounds of the concert and security officers were in the surrounding hotels while other first responders attempted to manage the scene after gunfire started. For a critical first few minutes during the attack, no central command post was in place guiding responders.
The report reviewing the shooting found that responders’ communications were overwhelmed by 911 calls, the sheer number of victims and incorrect information about multiple shooters and the gunman’s location.
More work needs to be done to address intelligence available to officers at these scenes, Giacalone said.
“The lesson learned here is that somebody has got to be in charge of getting that information and getting it to the incident commander on the scene, so that he or she can make a better-informed decision.”