10 Years Later, Columbine Has Led to a Tactical Overhaul

During an exercise, an armed instructor, left, trains school resource officers in Columbia, S.C., to immediately enter a building and find any shooters.
During an exercise, an armed instructor, left, trains school resource officers in Columbia, S.C., to immediately enter a building and find any shooters. (By Mary Ann Chastain -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By P. Solomon Banda
Associated Press
Sunday, April 19, 2009

GOLDEN, Colo. -- The first officers on the scene at Columbine High School had never trained for what they found: No hostages. No demands. Just killing.

In the ensuing hours, the nation watched as the standard police procedure for dealing with rampages proved flawed on April 20, 1999.

Two officers exchanged fire with one of the teenage gunmen just outside the school door, then stopped -- as they had been trained to do -- to wait for a SWAT team. During the 45 minutes it took for the team to assemble and go in, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot 10 of the 13 people they killed that day.

The killers committed suicide when the makeshift SWAT team entered. But the officers took several hours more to secure the place. One of the wounded, teacher Dave Sanders, slowly bled to death.

"It was really frustrating," said Marjorie Lindholm, a grief counselor and speaker at police training seminars. Lindholm was a 16-year-old student in a science classroom where two classmates used their T-shirts to try to stanch Sanders's bleeding. "We were told 'They're on their way; they're coming.' "

Ten years later, Columbine has transformed the way the nation's police deal with shooting rampages.

After the tragedy, police across the country developed "active-shooter" training. It calls for responding officers to rush toward gunfire and step over bodies and bleeding victims, if necessary, to stop the gunman -- the active shooter -- first.

Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, a patrol officer in the Denver suburb of Arvada, and now-retired sheriff's Sgt. Grant Whitus, two of the SWAT team members who searched Columbine that day, train police with the idea that a gunman, in a mass shooting, kills a person every 15 seconds.

Police say the new strategy has saved lives nationwide.

In North Carolina, active-shooter training became part of the law enforcement academy curriculum in 2001. Last month, a rampage at a Carthage, N.C., nursing home in which a nurse and seven patients were killed was cut short when Officer Justin Garner entered the place alone and wounded the gunman with a single shot. Garner, 25, had undergone active-shooter training.

For three decades before Columbine, law enforcement had followed a contain-and-wait strategy calculated to prevent officers and bystanders from getting killed: The first officers at the scene would set up a perimeter to contain the situation and then wait for SWAT team members trained in military tactics and equipped with special gear and assault weapons to go in.

That strategy and the creation of SWAT teams were prompted by the 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin, in which Charles Whitman killed 14 people.

Columbine prompted the most sweeping changes in tactics since.

Police now use "contact teams," in which patrol officers from any jurisdiction enter a building in formation to confront the gunman and shoot him out if necessary.

SWAT teams go in after that.

During the 2007 massacre that left 33 people dead at Virginia Tech, three of the first five officers who entered the classroom building where most of the victims died were officers trained to deal with an active shooter, an official report said.

The gunman, Seung Hui Cho, killed himself about a minute after officers used a shotgun to blast a deadbolt to get in, the report said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company