Problem Statement: The response to the shootings in Columbine could have been handled more effectively if there was a solid coordinate effort from law enforcement and emergency units in the area. The plan of action to prevent the incident from playing out further was hastily put together and only cost more lives at danger. All possible lines of communication whether it be from law enforcement officials, emergency personnel or even the media for that matter, were contradicting each other and inaccurate in their details. Information from witnesses, victims and Columbine school officials also proved to be unreliable in this terrorist act.
Their accounts of what happened including details were largely useless in SWAT’s efforts to secure and contain the terrorist act at hand. Overall, with the outcome of the Columbine shootings, there should have been a more joint and concise effort on the part of law enforcement and medical units to minimize the situation at hand supported by thorough communication between the agencies. Details of the account by witnesses, victims, and law officials could have been compiled and researched to prove their accuracy to execute a more efficient plan of action.
History: On April, 20, 1999, the deadliest shooting in United States history occurred in Jefferson County, Colorado, at Columbine High School. “The radio message at 11:23 a.m. that Tuesday morning was the first official word alerting area law enforcement to the fact that something had gone very wrong at the large suburban school about eight miles southwest of Denver”(Stillman). Shortly there after a deputy had called for aid from all participating units to stop what appeared to be a bloody siege by an undetermined number of gunmen. From the start, the response was not coordinated as several units whether it be law enforcement or emergency medical teams converged into the area. In handling the situation, the authorities relied heavily on several reports from the witnesses whose stories of the account were conflicting.
There was no official account of how many gunmen were in the school, the number of wounded/killed or how many students were still in the building. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office along with Special Weapons and Tactics teams did not respond effectively to the situation as the shooting continued. Evacuated students were checked for wounds and possibly weapons on them (if they were part of the plot) as it was later discovered that the gunmen had automatic weapons on them. “Escaped students huddling behind patrol cars told deputies that an unknown number of gunmen in the school were shooting people-maybe with Uzis or shotguns-and throwing hand grenades” (Stillman). As the SWAT teams began their entry in to the school there was no clear communication between the response teams as they were trying to subdue the gunmen.
The school by design was a complex web of corridors and rooms of different sizes which had been renovated to accommodate the rising student population and faculty members. The SWAT team did not have an updated map illustrating the new additions to the school. “What the SWAT teams would confront was a sprawling 250,000-square foot building on two levels, containing 75 classrooms, many smaller rooms and closets, and such large gathering areas as the gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium. The school had been significantly updated and expanded in 1995, including the addition of a new cafeteria and library” (Stillman). They relied on drawings/sketches from students escaping from the school.
This also affected the emergency response personnel, who did not coordinate properly with law enforcement to provide evacuation and care for the wounded and killed. Both departments never worked together cooperatively in matters such as this. So in the case of a terrorist plot, setting up a unified command was complex in its execution. Chief William Pessemier, of the Littleton Fire Department recalls the ordeal. “We worked very hard to integrate that operation” and “but part of the problem was that I had never met Dave Walcher [Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department] before in my life. We did not have a real strong relationship with many of the law enforcement agencies in the local area.” explains the confused official (Stillman). As emergency response tried to perform their services, they were met by gunfire by the two gunmen. From a result of this, the media sent out inaccurate reports to the public in trying to depict what was going at Columbine High School. The outcome, was a dreadful one, with 12 students and a teacher either killed or wounded while some 24 others were injured in less than a half hour.
Public Administration/Solution: The shootings at Columbine High
School could have been handled properly if there was more of a joint effort between the law enforcement and emergency medical agencies in such matters. The gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold could have been prevented from doing more damage if the agencies had already had some type of emergency response system set in place for such an event. There should have been more communications between the two and scenario based solutions on how to resolve terrorist acts. With that being said the agencies could have familiarized themselves with other agencies in the area and establish more of a solid line of communications.
The outcome of the Columbine shootings may have been different. A guideline supported by scenarios illustrating different levels of terrorist acts could have been set in place to handle the Columbine shootings. A joint command could have been installed for such a tragedy through which both agencies can respond properly. In regards to providing safety to the schools, a constant security measure should have been put in place to protect students and faculty members. This could have manifested into providing more security guards based on student population or installing a camera system for the huge campus. Most importantly, an updated map needed to be accessible at all times as well to be used in resolving such an incident. From what public agencies can gain from studying the Columbine shootings is that communication is vital in handling emergencies as well as joint dialogue/cooperation between relevant groups involved is a must.
Stillman, R. J. (2010). Public administration: Concepts and cases: 2010 custom edition. (9th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin – Cengage Learning. Susan Rosegrant “The Shootings at Columbine High School: The Law Enforcement Response” pp. 259-282
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