How the story of the Columbine gunmen defies any prototype
Klebold and Harris managed to forever change the way law enforcement looked at active shooter situations
A little after 1100 hours on April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris entered their high school with the intent of committing a terrorist attack which they hoped would kill hundreds.
Armed with duffel bags full of homemade bombs and firearms acquired for them by friends, they were able to kill 12 students and one teacher (they wounded 24 other individuals) before taking their own lives. Thanks to the poor quality of their homemade bombs, they failed to destroy the school.
In the months following the massacre, various falsehoods were presented. The culprits were Goths, gamers, bullying victims, etc. In reality, they were simply sociopaths who sought to kill a bunch of people.
The Immediate Aftermath
Debates raged in the months following the shootings, but often we were debating with limited data. The facts took a long time to get out, and many still may never be known.
On the first anniversary of the rampage, I was sitting with members of the Littleton (Colo.) SWAT team on a makeshift video set outside of the high school.
While Columbine High School is in unincorporated Littleton and is Jefferson County’s jurisdiction much of the initial response was by Littleton officers. The first three were SWAT members who grabbed a responding Jefferson County deputy (who was also SWAT) and had cross trained with them and they made their way into the school.
They were doing what we eventually developed as law enforcement’s active shooter response. But in 1999, our paradigm was to stabilize, control the perimeter, and coordinate an entry.
So, the first responding commander recalled those officers and initiated the standard strategy of the time. People continue to criticize this without understanding the true level of chaos facing the responders. Here are just a few of the variables facing the people in command:
• An unknown number of assailants
• Multiple shots inside and outside
• Injured people down in many areas
Harris and Klebold wanted not only kill their friends, teachers, and classmates, but also kill as many first responders as possible. Many of the explosives Harris and Klebold planted outside the school were intended to kill arriving first responders. Had those bombs actually detonated, it is difficult to say how large the horror would have been.
Many Details Remain Unknown
The problem facing investigators and policy makers was getting the facts and even understanding the true scope of this terrorist act. Media reports on the suspects were often misleading (or just plain wrong), and the reporting of the police response was even worse.
A year after the attack, the most competent report available — at least according to the participants I interviewed — was an article in “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. The magazine report showed that the police response was actually pretty quick as the initial shooting in the parking lot involved two deputies. One deputy — the school resource officer — actually hit Harris’s magazine with a round from his handgun (so much for the theory of the suspects killing themselves after initial law enforcement resistance is met).
Much of what we were told about how Klebold and Harris chose their victims turned out to be false. Even the facts on the suspects themselves didn’t match the initial assumptions. These were just suicide sociopaths who found each other and then, enabled by others, plotted to kill hundreds. They actually tried to pull it off with such serious intent that, after finishing their killing in the library, went back to the cafeteria to attempt to detonate their bombs.
Fortunately, they failed, and after more than 40 minutes they returned to the library where they committed suicide.
But most of the record has never been amended. I doubt many people — even many in law enforcement — know all of the facts. Did you know about the bombs aimed at first responders, that deputies exchanged fire with the suspects before they entered the school, or that all 13 victims were killed within the first 13 minutes?
Let’s face it. Some of you reading this were in middle school when this event occurred!
The Legacy of Columbine
Colorado Governor Bill Owens initiated an investigation aimed at recommending the best way to prevent a future massacre. In May 2001, his team released an excellent list of recommendations that have lead to much of what we do today to prepare for active shooters and help schools identify and intervene before such perpetrators act. It is sad the media hasn’t taken the recommendations in Governor Owens’ report more seriously.
For first responders, the motive of a suspect is a moot point. We don’t care why someone is doing bad acts. We stop the behavior…period!
We train to go into the school after the shooter (or shooters) and stop them as quickly as possible. We don’t count on them taking themselves out. We are better trained and better armed because of this terrible act of terrorism.
How have you prepared? You have a responsibility to think (and plan) how you would react to an active shooter in the schools, churches, malls, restaurants, stadiums or any location your imagination leads you.
One of the true legacies of the Columbine Massacre is the need for law enforcement to constantly use its imagination to prepare for unexplainable evil to strike. We need to push training and equipment down to the patrol level, improving law enforcement’s response to a broad range of threats.
On this anniversary, we mourn the fallen and we reaffirm our mission to constantly improve our ability to stop those who would attempt such evil in our communities.