Mar. 7, 2001 - The post-Columbine world is a scary place. And law enforcement officials have to be prepared for it.
Since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School before committing suicide almost two years ago, training for law enforcement officers has undergone a "fundamental quantum shift," said retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.
Officers responding to Columbine sought to set up a perimeter and contain the shooters. Officers in the new world move quickly to chase, find and, if necessary, kill the killers.
"The fundamental change is that if somebody is actively shooting, then the law enforcement officers are being trained to move toward the sound of the guns," said Grossman, the author of two books on school shootings. He also provides tactical training to the FBI and other agencies.
"If someone is actively killing someone, then as a law enforcement officer, you need to move to the shooting and take decisive action," Grossman said.
Nowhere was this change more apparent than at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., on Monday, when officers already inside the school and just arriving to the scene acted almost immediately to corral 15-year-old Charles Andrew "Andy" Williams, who had killed two people and wounded 13 others.
The law enforcement response at Columbine has also come under fire. The Governor's Columbine Review Commission declared just days before the Santee shootings that the traditional law enforcement strategy used at Columbine - confine and wait - only gave Harris and Klebold more time to cause damage.
Nine lawsuits filed by families of about 20 Columbine victims against the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office allege that a quicker response could have saved lives.
Law enforcement agencies locally and nationally have studied the Columbine response to learn how to better handle such a situation in the future.
"We all learned from Columbine," said Westminster SWAT Cmdr. Gene Boespflug. "The entire department has been trained with immediate action rapid de ployment." Many metro-area departments have or are in the process of training every officer on the force to handle what is known as the "active shooter." Officers are traditionally trained to deal with people such as bank robbers or hostage-takers. In those situations, officers want to negotiate an end to the situation peacefully.
"People need to realize the old-time talk-and-tactics response still works," said Lakewood police Capt. Jerry Garner. "In other words, setting up a perimeter and waiting is going to work in most situations." But the active shooter is a different matter.
"As you saw at Columbine, the majority of these individuals don't care if they're going to be apprehended," Boespflug said. "They may commit suicide or suicide by cop. They don't care."
So now, instead of waiting outside, authorities wait until they get four officers on scene, Grossman said. Then, they move in a diamond pattern, with a point man, two flankers and a rear.
Training drills frequently involve officers having to concentrate through screams, bodies and scared victims running toward them.
"You don't wait," said Capt. Tim Cuthriell, the head of Denver's Metro/SWAT bureau. "If lives are being lost and shooting is taking place, you go in as quickly as possible and attempt to confront and neutralize the shooter."
Cuthriell said Denver officers used the technique in January at a possible hostage situation at a bank in Cherry Creek. When officers went in, though, they discovered that the robbers had left and locked two bank employees in the vault.
Cuthriell said Denver SWAT officers have been trained in such rapid-response techniques for years. Grossman said Columbine provided a wake-up call that all police officers need to have this type of training.
"It really was a watershed," he said.
But as fundamentally as Columbine may have changed police response techniques, many still question whether these tactics would have helped at the school.
"If you look at the scenario at Columbine, I don't think it would have made a difference because we had a complex situation," Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said. "This was a very complex situation. There could be times when it would make a difference if you have a different set of variables."
Stone said the tactics worked well in Santee, where officers did not have to deal with being shot at or have to worry about bombs and booby traps. The Santana High School shooter acted alone and had only a single pistol.
Others agree that Columbine presented a different challenge to officers.
"From what I know about the California incident, I don't think you can draw a similarity between the incident there and Columbine," said Golden Police Chief Russ Cook. "You train and train, and you can't predict what will be around the corner unless you're some kind of mind-reader on the next incident."
Unfortunately for law enforcement officers, the post-Columbine era sometimes demands just that.
"It's a brave new world," Grossman said.