Revisiting the Amish schoolhouse massacre
|By Rick Armellino|
Director and CEO of Baker Ballistics, LLC
When visitors do not brighten peoples' days
Fastened onto the corner of the blackboard in the front of the class was a prominent sign that read, "Visitors Brighten Peoples’ Days," punctuated by yellow-and-black smiley face stickers. The irony of this sweet and innocent message had not yet registered with Lancaster County Deputy Coroner Janice Ballenger, as she surveyed the horrific results of an evil plan carried out within the small confines of this classroom a couple of hours earlier.
Grotesquely positioned beneath the friendly sign with the smiley faces lay two dead bodies. One was the mass murderer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, and the other was a gentle 12-year-old girl named Anna Mae Stoltzfus. Deputy Coroner Ballenger arrived at the grisly crime scene with law enforcements’ second wave of responders. Her first official duty was to legally declare Roberts and Stoltzfus dead from their head wounds. The forensic evidence collection and documentation duties that remained to be completed by the state police crime scene and county’s coroner employees was difficult for even the most seasoned veterans.
"There wasn’t a desk or chair in the room that wasn’t covered in blood or broken glass," Ms. Ballenger later recalled. After counting more than a dozen shotgun- inflicted pellet wounds on one small child during the next day’s autopsy, she withdrew herself from this emotionally draining process, leaving the remaining autopsies for others within her department to complete.
Homicidal and suicidal psychopaths — Not the typical criminal
The October 2nd, 2006 Amish schoolhouse massacre in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, is a textbook example showing how quickly and efficiently killing can commence in the presence of a closely established police containment perimeter.
The first notification of this developing massacre occurred after Roberts released everyone from the schoolhouse except ten young females. The teacher immediately ran to a neighboring farm and contacted 911. An Amish adult male from this farm, with his two large dogs, took the bold opportunity to stealthily approach the windowless back wall of the schoolhouse. Hoping for an opportunity to help the little girls, he slowly crept around one side of the wooden structure and positioned himself as an observer next to a side window. Upon reaching the double paned window, he noticed that the old-fashioned type blind was not pulled and this window was not barricaded.
Observing that the first police patrol vehicle to approach the scene was not slowing down to stop, the Amish man quickly withdrew from his strategic observational position and sprinted towards the roadway to wave down the trooper, who did a fast U-turn and parked. That would be the last successful attempt at an unnoticed move upon the building by anyone.
As unlikely as it sounds, Roberts may have been very surprised by the early arrival of police. The Amish are a passive and non-violent culture who often do not report crime or assist in criminal prosecutions. The items that this deranged individual brought into the schoolhouse were indicative that he expected to have a lengthy period of time to sexually molest these little girls.
Typical of armed school invaders, Roberts was steadily progressing towards the final chapter of his plan, mass murder then suicide. Not all patrol officers are taught that armed school invaders should immediately be considered and handled as weapons of mass destruction. The widespread use of the common descriptor "emotionally disturbed person" combined with the continued use of containment / negotiation tactics in the absence of active shooting confirms this obvious operational flaw.
More troopers arrived. A brave group of patrol officers formed-up and cautiously approached the schoolhouse. Roberts, obviously agitated, yelled for them to immediately leave or he would begin shooting. They partially complied with his demands by retreating, but not leaving. A police vehicle’s public address system was used to announce multiple pleas for him to throw out his weapons and come out with his hands up. Roberts again loudly ordered them to leave, or he would immediately shoot everyone.
Out of options
This psychopath had established full control and time was running out. The troopers on-scene sensed the tension and realized the girls’ situation was extremely precarious. Shooting could begin at any moment. SWAT takes a long time to arrive and this psychopath had shown absolutely no interest in negotiation. To make matters worse, the control of this volatile situation had seamlessly transitioned off-site command.
From this point forward any potential "window of opportunity" for resolution that could suddenly arise would need to be conveyed up the command chain for permission to react. Aggressive action against the intruder, short of hearing gunfire from within the school, would now take time and would require courage of leadership from a distant commander. Although all the troopers had been trained in "active shooter" procedures, they were not trained, authorized or equipped to conduct independent "Immediate Action Rapid Deployment" (IARD) tactics.
"Immediate Action Rapid Deployment" (IARD) is an underutilized concept in today’s policy heavy micromanaged patrol environment. This novel concept relies upon the officers on scene to use their ingenuity and courage to operate independently of off-site command and control during emergencies such as armed school invaders.
Homicidal and suicidal individuals kill fewer people while being hunted, pressured and pursued. Unable to focus full attention to the intended victims, the predators’ planned carnage is delayed by an active pursuit. When police ultimately close-in on a homicidal and suicidal individual, the predator usually rushes to commit suicide. Suicide by cop at this point sometimes occurs, but usually the ending is self-inflicted.
The longer this incident progressed, the higher up the chain of command the decision-maker was likely to be. More time was now required to make any decision, right or wrong — or worse yet, making no decision at all. The SWAT team was still a long way from Nickel Mines. Everyone but the psychopathic intruder was clearly out of options.
Passive police first responder policy — Who does it really protect?
Timid command during times of crisis is easily hidden behind the fuzzy and noble label titled “officer safety concerns." Command indecision can be just as deadly as making a wrong decision. The results of making no decision offer the most political cover when a situation ends badly.
The specter of training-up and equipping patrol “cowboys” with the personal authority to run into schools with their “guns-blazing” gives heartburn to the toughest of career police administrators. Even when they know this is exactly the type of option that someday patrol may need to save innocent lives.
Everyone on scene hoped that the next wave of higher trained and better equipped officers would be arriving shortly. Although the armed and ready rescuers waiting outside were now being used as observers and conduits of information, they were still cocked and locked waiting for a command decision, or the sound of gunfire — whichever came first.
Suddenly and unexpectedly a child’s loud screaming was heard from within the schoolhouse. The rescuers immediately requested permission on the radio to approach the building. The answer to their urgent request came back -- permission denied.
Approximately twenty-five minutes after the first 911 call, a large anxious group of people was gathered nearby. More police personnel were arriving by the minute. In addition to the schoolhouse perimeter, troopers also manned an outer staging area to shield the already waiting medical personnel, worried friends and family from possible gunfire. County and state police dispatchers were desperately attempting to open a line of communication with Roberts to begin negotiations.
A Herculean effort to prevent injury or death to just one innocent sometimes results in the loss of many. This new breed of predator does not play by traditional rules. Negotiation, surrender and escape are not options. Time works in their favor.
The large "show of force” established just outside meant absolutely nothing to the psychopath in control on the inside. All that mattered to Roberts was completing his evil plan.
As the first ballistic shield bearing trooper in line reached a window, the gunfire suddenly ended. The monstrous coward had predictably killed himself as these courageous troopers gained close proximity.
The final tally? All ten girls shot. Five killed instantly. One remains in a coma. And four girls, although disfigured, have thankfully fully recovered from their gunshot wounds. The prompt medical assistance and airlift capability prearranged by these selfless professionals was instrumental in saving the lives of five little girls.
In the aftermath of the Amish schoolhouse massacre, state police representatives conduct seminars, reminding other law enforcement professionals that their officers heroically "did their best" and nothing more could have been done. They say it all happened way too fast. Roberts was a formidable and wily predator hell-bent on molesting and killing little girls and therefore was unstoppable. According to the rules of engagement on that fateful day, this is all true. He was unstoppable.
The massacre that occurred at the Amish schoolhouse was the fault of one deranged individual, Charles Carl Roberts, IV. Everyone else involved did their absolute best to save the lives of the schoolgirls. Heroism abounded and no one at the scene should ever be criticized for failure to perform as trained and expected. The fact that five girls survived is a testament to their efforts.
Recently, the ten troopers who had courageously approached the schoolhouse as wood splinters and bullets exploded off the exterior walls all received their department’s highest award for courage and bravery in the line of duty, the Medal of Honor.
Nineteenth-century philosopher George Santayana astutely observed, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Fearing future armed visitors from the outside world, Amish parents in this idyllic rural corner of Pennsylvania Dutch country vividly remember the recent past. Some are reluctant to send their precious children to the brand new school built in the wake of this terrible event.
Patrol first response — Become the hunter, not the observer
Fact: Early contact interrupts a killer’s murderous plan. “Immediate Action Rapid Deployment” (IARD) tactics can stop a massacre before the shooter goes active.
Senior Range Instructor Jeff Reed of the Alameda County California Sheriff’s Department understands the importance of early aggressive contact with armed individuals and trains accordingly. Reed’s deputies are taught to be the hunters and the armed potential killers their prey.
According to Reed, "An officers’ fighting mind set, coupled with good, sound training and tactics will turn the officer into the hunter. This should enable them to take the fight to the fight when the situation requires it. Hesitation, indecisions and inability to act can sometimes be as dangerous as the suspect.”
Having the confidence and ability to instantly adapt to a changing environment are vitally important skills needed to win a violent encounter. The great American General George S. Patton, Jr., knew it too. Patton cautioned his subordinates, "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."
Immediate aggressive response — It’s called "officer needs assistance"
Police administrators and policymakers need to treat intruders inside schools with the same level of responder intensity and seriousness as the call for "officer needs assistance" garners within police agencies.
SWAT - A crutch for patrol responders?
Clay Searle, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer, currently runs PoliceTraining.net. Clay was still hard at work fighting crime when LAPD formed the nation’s first dedicated full-time SWAT team. He recalled a prophetic conversation back in the early 1970s with some older and very experienced patrol officers.
Searle said, "The old-timers were saying that creating SWAT was a two-edged sword that SWAT would keep officers safe but they eventually would no longer feel obligated or expected to go into dangerous situations to assist the public. They would stand outside and wait for SWAT to arrive and do the much of the hazardous police work once required of patrol." Thirty-five years later, this insightful observation has been proven valid many times over.
The solution to school intruders - IARD
Law enforcement leaders and policy makers must be willing to accept the following two logical propositions if reducing the potential for mass killings at school is truly desired:
Proactive IARD tactics should not be reserved for use only during on-going violence, such as patrol response to "shots fired." IARD should be utilized by patrol during all approaches to publicly perceived threats. This could prevent an armed individual from the progressing into the "active" shooting stage of their plan. Policy should allow for the liberal use of IARD at the sole discretion of the individual patrol officer.
Every child is precious to someone. Police agency leaders should view their department’s existing first responder policy to a potentially armed intruder at school through the eyes having their own loved ones present inside the school being threatened. Would they be comfortable with the speed and type of police response mandated by the policy? What is their opinion about mandatory school lockdowns that limit escape options?
Policy crafted to placate parents and school administrators may not be compatible with activities designed to maximize the amount of children surviving an armed school attack. Active shooter and lockdown drills may appear logical and be comforting to concerned parents. However, all policy and procedures must maximize the potential of children to survive, while remaining flexible enough to accommodate a wide-range of various attack scenarios and threats.
"The IARD Drill" – Before the shooting begins
The need to approach reported intruders in public places must be drilled into the mindset and culture of each agency. Since most unknown intruders will be not armed and dangerous, police administrators should not view the IARD drill as a waste of time and resources.
Like any skill, IARD must be practiced or it will not be effective when actually needed to save lives. During "false alarms," officers should be instructed to work at improving public safety by learning floor plans and teaching school and public building officials how to properly communicate necessary information. A quick and efficient response directly to the reported threat is the desired goal.
IARD Requirements & Considerations
Technology advances the capabilities of first responders
Ballistic shield cover minimizes the need to hopscotch between natural cover features and offers excellent protection while moving down hallways. In order to conduct inconspicuous IARD tactics in public buildings, it is preferable that the ballistic shield and weapon remain concealed in an inconspicuous manner, yet be available for use in an instant if needed. Unrestricted speed of movement combined with the capability of quickly delivering accurate deadly firepower is vital.
A quality holographic sight equipped patrol rifle combined with the lightweight and portable Baker Batshield gives police first responders a tremendous tactical advantage while approaching armed individuals or during a subsequent gun-battle.
Using modern equipment and training, IARD is no longer considered an insane risk to the rescuer or the endangered potential victims. The use of this type of protective equipment should be strongly encouraged whenever IARD tactics are conducted.
Obstacle to school safety - Institutional resistance to change
When one home-grown nut, in a simple one-room school is able to shoot every child in the presence of a crowd of armed police officers – tactics must be reviewed and possible alternative options considered.
Imagine what would occur if an organized team of well trained and dedicated suicidal terrorists targeted a crowded public school. Early contact and engagement by the first responding patrol officers would likely be the ONLY hope to save the entire school from large scale torture and mass murder.
IARD is a return to an early era of policing when the patrol officer had the authority and expectation to perform many dangerous duties now reserved for better trained and equipped specialists. Yet, some highly experienced law enforcement veterans confidentially complain that the quality and inherent survival ability of modern police personnel has slowly degraded over time.
Effective IARD requires the patrol officer to use ingenuity, aggression and survive long enough to save lives and ultimately win the violent encounter. Envisioning the use of patrol assets to meet this expectation is a difficult one for some leaders to consider. Teaching a non-aggressive officer to become the hunter is perceived as a daunting training task.
In the handling of school invaders, the resources required for additional training and equipment are vitally important and should be addressed with school and political leaders before a tragedy strikes close to home.
Conclusion – Leadership required
Responding to an invasion at school is no place for policy tainted with career based fears of failure, or influenced by faint-of-heart politicians. There are situations that demand immediate aggression by patrol officers. The potential of mass carnage inside schools is one of them.
Safeguarding children at school is the responsibility of many American law enforcement agencies. One thing is for sure -- the effort, dedication, understanding and ultimate action that senior law enforcement management devotes to keeping children safe at school is a direct measure of the quality of leadership found within their respective police agency.
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