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Never doubt yourself: A SWAT cop's lesson learned from Columbine

One of the officer's most vivid memories – and one that led him to his biggest lesson learned – occurred while standing over the bodies of the killers in the library


Eighteen years ago today — on April 20, 1999 — two deranged teenage boys entered their high school armed with two small arms chambered in 9mm (a carbine and a pistol), two 12-gauge shotguns, and nearly a hundred improvised explosive devices, including bombs made out of 20-pound propane tanks.

The two killers murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured at least 24 additional people. As awful as the Columbine High School massacre was, it could easily have been far more deadly. Due to good fortune — and, perhaps, poor bomb-making skills — none of the truly deadly explosive devices detonated.

Anyone who has been involved in law enforcement for more than 15 minutes knows the murderers’ names — they do not merit mention in this space. This column is dedicated instead to other names, especially the deceased:

Sgt. James Smith of the Denver Police Department (left, in civilian clothes and a tactical vest and helmet) raced from his home to Columbine High, where he joined an improvised entry team to end the threat posed by the killers. Two minutes after they entered the building, the murderers shot themselves in the library. (Photo/CNN,KUSA)
Sgt. James Smith of the Denver Police Department (left, in civilian clothes and a tactical vest and helmet) raced from his home to Columbine High, where he joined an improvised entry team to end the threat posed by the killers. Two minutes after they entered the building, the murderers shot themselves in the library. (Photo/CNN,KUSA)

Cassie Bernall
Steven Curnow
Corey Depooter
Kelly Fleming
Matthew Kechter
Daniel Mauser
Daniel Rohrbough
Dave Sanders
Rachel Scott
Isaiah Shoels
John Tomlin
Lauren Townsend
Kyle Velasquez

Indeed, these killers left in their bloody wake hundreds of people whose memories of that day will live with them forever.

Those survivors have spent the better part of two decades recovering from their trauma.

One of those people is Sergeant James Smith of the Denver Police Department.

This is his story.

“I could tell something wasn’t right”

A member of the Denver Police Department SWAT team, Jamie Smith was not typically at home in the late morning on a Tuesday, but because there was an upcoming event, he was off that day, doing various chores around the house.

“I was out mowing the lawn and my wife opened the back door and I could tell something wasn’t right,” Smith told PoliceOne. “She said one of the neighbors had just called and said ‘Don’t take the kids to the park.’”

The caller was another police officer who knew that Smith was going to take the kids to the park at some point that day — he was calling to tell Smith to avoid Clement Park, which is immediately adjacent to Columbine High School.

Smith was immediately curious.

“I thought, ‘I should dig a little bit deeper into this,’ so I went and grabbed my police radio,” Smith said. “They were calling cops everywhere there. They were starting to develop a command post.”

Early reports are almost always inaccurate

Smith said that there were reports of as many as six to eight gunmen at Columbine High. This was due to the fact that the killers were moving so quickly through the school.

People were calling in and reporting two shooters at the West entrance, the North hallway, the South hallway, and the cafeteria. The early thinking was that there was a sniper on the roof of the school. Commanders on the scene were treating it like a terrorist attack.

Smith — like so many Denver PD officers who live in the area — grabbed his gear, got in his car, and drove to the scene. He presented himself at the CP and soon saw a familiar face — his DPD SWAT Commander.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, get anybody you can and get ready to go TNT’,” Smith said.

TNT stands for Tactical Neutralization Team, a tactic Denver SWAT had been working on for years in which small fire teams quickly move toward the sounds of gunfire and to stop it – in essence, what we would today call Active Shooter Response.

“We were five Denver SWAT guys and two guys, I believe, from Littleton PD. With the sniper on the roof, the command got us a fire truck to walk behind as we approached the front. Some of the guys on one side of the fire truck saw some movement at the front windows and we kind of stalled out. Some information was coming across the radio. I just happened to look over to the left and there was a door that I thought we might be able to access. So I went over there to look at it and it was in fact open but with the sunlight, you couldn’t see in it.”

An unexpected feeling at the door

One of the guys ran back to the fire truck to get a pike pole to shatter the glass. This is when Smith began to feel something unexpected.

“We poled the door and as we were staging to go in the door, I felt myself really kind of falling out of my game,” Smith said. “I could tell I was nervous. My knees were shaking. I hoped I wasn’t showing those visible signs of weakness to my other teammates. But I will tell you, I was scared.”

Smith wasn’t alone in that feeling.

“Once we got in, I kind of was looking at the other operators and I think we were all kind of nervous,” Smith said. “I kind of started doing the deep breathing and composed myself much better and then got into the routine of what I know and how to work and operate — the training kicked in.”

The search took a long time — the building is around 10,000 square feet with a capacity for more than 1,600 students.

“We broke a lot of what I’d call training fundamentals, where you try to send two in a room but the team got stretched out pretty quick. If we could get in a classroom, we went in by ourselves and kind of ran the walls and checked under the desks. Again, at this point, we couldn’t hear any gunfire. Later the investigation showed us that two minutes after us making entry, they went back to the library and killed themselves.”

To keep everything in perspective, the team was still thinking that this was the act of terrorists. They were thinking that there were multiple fire teams spread out around the building trying to hold off the police. Movement had to be swift, but appropriately cautious.

The search continued, and the team saw evidence of the pipe bombs and homemade bombs. As the team located people, they directed them to the door from which they had made entry and cleared the rooms in between.

One of Smith’s most vivid memories — and one that provided a moment of clarity and his biggest lesson learned — occurred while standing over the bodies of the killers in the library and looking down at them.

“They were young kids. Their weapons weren’t as high quality as ours — a sawed-off shotgun and a Tec-9 — and I looked down at them and I thought to myself, ‘How could you two have me so scared? How could you take me out of my game for just even a minute?’ And whether it’s a SWAT operation or an officer responding to a violent call — that can happen to any of us.”

There are many ways to learn from tragedy

Numerous lessons were learned that day at Columbine High School. Tactics for active shooter response changed forever. There would be no more setting up perimeters and waiting for SWAT. After Columbine, it became all about running to sound of the guns — single officer response to active killers if that was all you had.

For Smith, the lesson was perhaps more subtle, but also probably more important. He said that he wants officers to know that they should be confident that they will prevail and that they should believe in their skills and abilities to get the job done.

“I want officers to keep in their mind: We have better training. We have better weaponry. We have better backup and people around us, and obviously we’ve got a better head on our shoulders,” Smith said.

“You just got to stay in your game. Never doubt yourself. Rely on your training. Keep doing that in your profession and never let it stop. Over time we’ve been afraid to call it what it is, but I was scared. I said a little prayer to my God and I said, ‘Get me out of this and I’m taking the kids to Disneyland,’ because the kids had been bugging me to go to Disneyland ... We were at Disneyland within a couple of weeks.”

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