The Lost Command

Sheriff Stone's report says his officers did everything right at Columbine. The evidence tells a different story.

"We had no way to confirm it," Armstrong said.

That was too much for Brown. "You were on the phone with them at the time," he blurted out.

Armstrong seemed startled. Someone had interrupted his testimony...a voice from the peanut gallery...a reporter or, worse, a civilian...saying what, exactly?

District Judge Brooke Jackson ordered public release of many of the items.
Anthony Camera
District Judge Brooke Jackson ordered public release of many of the items.
The door not taken: Using a fire truck for cover, SWAT members check a wounded student outside the schoolÂ’s northwest entrance. The open door on the right of the photo leads down a hallway to the library, but SWAT commanders chose to enter through a lower-level window down the west stairs instead.
The door not taken: Using a fire truck for cover, SWAT members check a wounded student outside the schoolÂ’s northwest entrance. The open door on the right of the photo leads down a hallway to the library, but SWAT commanders chose to enter through a lower-level window down the west stairs instead.

"You were on the phone with a teacher in the science room," Brown insisted.

Armstrong turned beseechingly to the commission chair, retired state supreme court justice William Erickson. "Mr. Chief Justice," he said, "we didn't know that was a teacher at the time."

If there was a ripe moment to examine the logic of Armstrong's explanation -- indeed, the logic of the entire rescue effort -- this was it. If the cops were so eager to "engage" the shooters, why hadn't they answered the plea for help, even if they did suspect it was a trap? How could it be that the library, the place the shooters were most active, the room most likely to contain wounded kids if not the shooters themselves, was the last place reached by the rescue operation? The students in the library didn't have helmets or body armor, but no one was talking about their uncommon valor.

Erickson merely smiled. "Hindsight's 20/20, isn't it?" he asked. "It's extremely difficult when you have an emergency of this type to meet all the exigencies."

Before the day was over, Erickson would warmly thank Armstrong and the other officers for their testimony, stating that he didn't see how they could have responded any differently on April 20 -- an extraordinary absolution, given how little official scrutiny the police response has received to date. But then, Erickson has always maintained that the commission's purpose is not to reinvestigate Columbine but to make recommendations for future public policy.

Yet how can the commission fulfill its mission when critical facts remain so elusive? "I said at the first meeting, 'You guys have got to hunt for the truth,'" says Mike Slater, a Columbine parent who's attended all of the commission hearings. "But they've said all along that they're not out to find fault. You can see that there are a lot of questions they're not asking."

Slater believes there is ample fault to be found, if the commission were so inclined. "I think there were some officers who would have gone into the school immediately," he says, "but whoever was in charge made some real poor judgments. Someone has to take responsibility for that. A man died because they didn't do their job."

Assigning blame for Columbine may seem like a fruitless exercise at this point. After all, the two hate-gorged adolescents responsible for the havoc are no longer in a position to answer anybody's questions. ("It's my fault!" Harris wrote in his journal. "Not my parents, not my brother, not my friends, not my favorite bands, not computer games, not the media, it's mine.") It is, in any case, an exercise that will be played out in court for years to come, in the multiple lawsuits filed on behalf of the injured and the dead.

Still, there are larger issues at stake than whether any particular officer faltered under fire last year. Columbine raises troubling questions about police emergency training and preparedness, the means and tactics of responding to an incident that "breaks the mold," as Armstrong put it, and the integrity and accountability of law enforcement. Those questions are neatly sidestepped in Sheriff Stone's report, which presents a highly selective and self-serving account of police actions that day.

Drawing on the work of eighty investigators, the largest criminal investigation in Colorado history, the digitalized report offers a detailed, "minute-by-minute" account of the slayings and the rescue effort, including several audio and video clips. Although its release was anticipated as early as last fall, the material underwent extensive review by Stone and his top aides, and still wasn't available by the one-year anniversary of the massacre -- the deadline for filing lawsuits over the incident.

Victims' families have blasted the report, calling it a desperate stab at spin control and an attempt to deflect legal liability. As a result of a public-records battle initiated by some of the families, in recent weeks Judge Brooke Jackson has ordered the release of a considerable amount of raw data gathered in the Columbine investigation, including video footage from news helicopters and the cafeteria surveillance cameras; last week, officials finally released 45 hours of 911 and dispatch calls. These materials, coupled with the accounts of eyewitnesses, offer a far messier picture of the Columbine rescue effort than the one provided in the sheriff's report; in several instances, they contradict the official timeline of events and challenge the fundamental claims that the command did not know where the shooters were and could not have moved any quicker to save lives.

The sheriff's report was supposed to explode the "myths" of Columbine, such as longstanding rumors regarding a third shooter or a special hit list of athletes. Instead, the report has spawned new myths: the myth of "bombs everywhere" hampering a swift response, for example, and the myth of impeccable police performance in the face of unimaginable horror.

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