HEADLINE: They Couldn't SWAT a Fly
But police commando teams are still a menace to society.
BYLINE: by James Bovard. ;
James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the
Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin's Press).
Federal and Colorado officials have transformed the April 20 killings at
Columbine High School into a law enforcement triumph. Attorney General Janet
Reno praised the local police response as "extraordinary," "a textbook" example
of "how to do it the right way." President Clinton declared on the Saturday
after the shooting that "we look with admiration at...the police officers who
rushed to the scene to save lives."
In fact, the excruciatingly slow response by Special Weapons and Tactics
(SWAT) teams and other lawmen to the killings in progress turned a multiple
homicide into a historic massacre. And federal aid to local law enforcement, by
spawning the proliferation of heavily armed but often flat-footed SWAT teams,
may actually undermine public safety.
In Littleton, the sheriff's department has shifted official explanations more
often than the Clinton legal defense team. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began
their rampage around 11:20 a.m. on April 20. Jefferson County sheriff's
spokesmen initially claimed the killers had committed suicide at around 12:30
p.m. After the police came under harsh criticism for the slowness of their
response, spokesmen announced that the killers may have committed suicide much
earlier--though no precise information has yet been released. Local officials at
first also greatly exaggerated the number of fatalities--thus causing the story
to have a greater initial impact.
For the first four days after the shooting, the sheriff's department claimed
that, as the Rocky Mountain News reported, once the boys' attack began, Deputy
Neil Gardner "ran into a (school) hallway and faced off with one of the two
gun-toting teenagers. Gardner and the gunman shot it out before the Jefferson
County deputy retreated to call for help." Law enforcement was criticized by
Denver radio hosts and others for the failure of the deputy to stand his ground.
Five days after the shooting stopped, Gardner went on "Dateline NBC" and
revealed that he had been outside in his patrol car--had driven up when he heard
shooting--and that he stopped 50 yards away and fired several shots at Harris,
but missed. When I asked him about this discrepancy, Steve Davis, spokesman for
the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, attributed it to the initial
confusion just after the shooting.
Much of the press is treating the lawmen as heroes, or at least failing to
challenge their more bizarre claims. For instance, Gardner said on "Dateline":
"I think with exchanging fire, it did allow some--some people that are--that
were fleeing the scene to get out of the building. I always will have to live
with the fact that, maybe if I could have dropped him, maybe it would have saved
one or two more lives." Yet, at the time of this gunfire exchange, the teens had
killed only two people. If Gardner had hit Harris, Klebold (described as a
follower of Harris) might have been unnerved and surrendered, and thus saved up
to eleven lives. Two other officers arrived, fired at one of the teens, and
Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone later explained: "We had initial
there right away, but we couldn't get in. We were way outgunned." Jefferson
County SWAT Commander Terry Manwaring, whose team entered the school but
proceeded at a glacial pace, said: "I just knew (the killers) were armed and
were better equipped than we were." SWAT team members had flak jackets,
submachine guns, and fully automatic M-16s--rather more formidable protection
and weaponry than the teenagers' shotguns, semiautomatic rifle, and shoddy TEC-9
handgun (which Clinton ludicrously described as an "assault pistol").
SWAT teams made no effort to confront the killers in action, but devoted
their efforts to repeatedly frisking students and marching them out of the
building with their hands on their heads. Jefferson County Undersheriff John
Dunaway bragged to the Denver Post that the evacuation of students "was about as
close to perfect under the circumstances as it could be." Even though none of
the SWAT teams came under hostile fire, Denver SWAT officer Jamie Smith claimed:
"I don't know how you could have thrown in another factor that would have made
things more difficult for us."
Television cameras captured a SWAT team creeping toward the school behind
firetruck, each officer taking one small step after another, with the group
hunched together as if expecting an attack at any moment. This maneuver occurred
long after the perpetrators were dead.
SWAT team members did not reach the room where the killers lay until at least
three hours after the shooting stopped. Wounded teacher Dave Sanders died,
perhaps because the team took four hours to reach the room he was in, even
though students had placed a large sign announcing "1 Bleeding to Death" in the
Many local SWAT teams descended on the high school parking lot and vicinity
after the shooting started. Police spokesmen said most of the SWAT teams were
not sent in "for fear that they might set off a new gunfight," as the New York
Times reported. Sheriff Stone justified the non-response: "We didn't want to
have one SWAT team shooting another SWAT team."
The police response was paralyzed by concerns for "officer safety."
spokesman Davis said, "We had no idea who was a victim and who was a suspect.
And a dead police officer would not be able to help anyone." Donn Kraemer of the
Lakewood SWAT team explained: "If we went in and tried to take them and got
shot, we would be part of the problem. We're supposed to bring order to chaos,
not add to the chaos." A former law enforcement officer who now helps train
Colorado police observed: "Everything the SWAT teams did that day was geared
around fear. A great flaw in the training for SWAT teams is that they're so
worried about officer safety that they've lost their ability to fight."
Law enforcement spokesmen worked overtime to turn the debacle into a triumph.
Sheriff Stone proclaimed that "early intervention" by the cops who shot at the
killers and missed "saved one heck of a lot of kids' lives, by pinning these
guys down (Harris and Klebold spent most of their time in the library, where
they killed ten people), by putting them on the defensive, instead of the
offensive (except for the 13 murder victims), and subsequently probably led to
their suicide." But one of the youths had left a suicide note before the carnage
Were any students directly harmed by police action? At 12:20 p.m. on the day
of the shooting, police on the scene radioed that they needed to be resupplied
with ammunition. This is peculiar because, according to official accounts,
Harris and Klebold fired only a handful of volleys at lawmen. SWAT teams laid
down "cover fire" as they advanced towards the building. Spokesman Davis could
not estimate how many shots were fired by the SWAT teams. Denver attorney Jack
Beam stated that the sheriff's department may be a target of lawsuits because of
possible "friendly fire" casualties.(Jefferson County Coroner Nancy Bodelson
persuaded a Colorado judge to seal the autopsy reports on the victims--thus
making it much more difficult to determine who shot whom. ) Said Beam: "Public
officials want to make it like you are anti-victim if you want to get to the
The Colorado debacle is ironic in that SWAT teams are routinely criticized
for excessive violence against unarmed civilians. Peter Kraska of Eastern
Kentucky University estimated that the use of police SWAT teams has " increased
by 538 percent" since 1980. Ninety percent of police departments responding to a
1995 survey by Kraska reported having an active paramilitary unit. Kraska told
the Washington Post: "We have never seen this kind of policing, where SWAT teams
routinely break through a door, subdue all the occupants and search the premises
for drugs, cash, and weapons." (Before being sanitized the SWAT acronym
originally stood for "Special Weapons Attack Team.")
SWAT teams are most often used for no-knock raids in drug cases. But now
hardware may be driving policy; so many cities have police dressed up for war,
it is often easier to rely on massive intimidation rather than old- fashioned
police work. No-knock raids have become so common that thieves in some places
routinely kick down doors and claim to be police. No-knock raids at wrong
addresses have become a national scandal. Naturally, some police departments
have responded to the problem by seeking to define it out of existence. New York
City Police Commissioner Howard Safir insists that his officers have not
wrongfully raided someone's house unless they go to a different address than
that typed on the search warrant--regardless of whether they have any
justification for busting down doors.
SWAT teams are routinely called to deal with people threatening to take their
own lives, often with catastrophic results. As the San Antonio Express- News
reported on May 23, "A 48-year-old armed man was killed in a hail of gunfire
early Saturday by a special operations police squad during what police said was
an attempt to stop him from committing suicide."
A Fitchburg, Massachusetts SWAT team attacked an apartment building in
December 1996, seeking to arrest a drug dealer. However, one of its stun
grenades (similar to those the FBI used at Waco) set fire to the building and
left 24 people homeless.
Once local governments militarize the police, they find more and more
pretexts to send in the troops, if for nothing else than to keep people in
place. How else to explain the practice of St. Petersburg, Florida, in deploying
SWAT teams to keep order along a parade route? Or of the Greenwich, Connecticut
SWAT deployment for crowd control any time lottery jackpots exceed $1 million,
as the New York Times reported? Palm Beach County in Florida has twelve separate
such teams; weapons were found in fewer than 20 percent of the locations they
raided in 1996.
Massive federal aid is fueling this militarization of local police. Since
1995, the Pentagon has deluged local law enforcement with thousands of machine
guns, over a hundred armored personnel carriers, scores of grenade launchers,
and over a million other pieces of military hardware. The police arms buildup
has also been fueled by federal drug-war aid. Instead of relying on street
smarts, police departments are resorting to high-tech weaponry, courtesy of
Uncle Sam. This is the same mentality that led to zero American combat
casualties during the Kosovo bombing but left the land to be protected a
SWAT teams are becoming an impediment to public safety. There were probably
plenty of policemen with the courage to enter Columbine High School and go after
the shooters while the killings continued. But the SWAT teams' military- style
command structure and their take-no-casualties mindset led to police dallying
while civilians died.
Citizens pay taxes so government will guard their rights and safety, not
bully them into submission when they go to a parade or buy a lottery ticket, nor
kick down their door every time a neighbor accuses them of drug possession. It
is time to remember what peace officers were hired for, and end the military
build-up on Main Street.