The Lost Command

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

The decision not to pursue the shooters inside is a costly one. The engagement breaks off at a time when 911 calls from the office area and the library, as well as the officers' own observations, leave no doubt about where the killers have gone: They're in the library, shooting 22 people, killing ten.


The Myth of Immediate Entry
The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
The sign not seen: A SWAT officer rished to aid evacuation efforts at the south side of the school, below the handmade sign indicating the room where teacher Dave Sanders lay wounded. Students in the room with Sanders first told dispatchers about their location—and the sign—hours earlier.
For more Westword coverage of the shootings, go to the Columbine Reader.

In interviews with Westword last April, a few weeks before Judge Jackson ordered Stone's office to release its long-awaited report, Jefferson County Undersheriff John Dunaway and Denver police captain Vince DiManna both insisted that the first SWAT team entered Columbine by 11:45 a.m.

The report tells a different story. There was no command structure on site to authorize immediate entry by 11:45; in fact, it isn't clear who was in command at Columbine for the first half hour or so. Lieutenant Terry Manwaring of the Jeffco SWAT team established a command post at the school at 11:36, and the report states that Lieutenant Dave Walcher assumed "the role of incident commander" at 11:45, but elsewhere it notes that Dunaway put Walcher in charge after the undersheriff's arrival -- at 11:52.

The first SWAT team to enter Columbine went in at 12:06 p.m., on the southeast side of the school. That's the opposite side of the school from the library, where, at that moment, Harris and Klebold were about to kill themselves or already had. But the sheriff's report all but credits his department for the suicides, which police didn't discover until three hours later: "The number of law enforcement officers on scene within minutes...plus the entry of SWAT inside the school minutes before their suicides denied the gunmen additional time to plan further actions or take other lives or hostages."

Despite that boast, the SWAT entry didn't exactly ruin the killers' day. It's doubtful that they even knew the first team was at the east door; the second team didn't go in the west side until more than an hour later. And once inside, the teams moved with slow, interminable deliberation. It took nearly four hours to clear the entire building, and the wounded in the science area and the library weren't reached until the latter stages of the search.

Why did it take so long? The report dwells on numerous potential and real hazards facing the teams: smoke, alarms, unexploded bombs, a gas leak (Harris and Klebold evidently turned on valves in the science labs), communication problems, accounts of a sniper on the roof and up to eight shooters, and so on. But any SWAT scenario assumes a strong dose of the unknown, and several of the dangers that supposedly slowed them down have been overstated or were quickly cleared up.

For example, dispatch calls reveal that the sniper report was discounted shortly after noon -- the hapless suspect turned out to be an unlucky repairman. As for the "bombs everywhere" excuse, the majority of the 44 unexploded devices found in the school were still among the killers' gear in the library; the teams didn't even know those bombs existed until the very end of their operation. Most of the remaining "live" bombs scattered about weren't ticking propane tanks but much tamer "crickets," small gas canisters filled with gunpowder that were about as "live" as an unlit firecracker. Even if a perp was still around to light a fuse or two, the bombs probably would have to be inserted in an unsuspecting officer's rectum in order to prove lethal.

As it turns out, bombs and snipers couldn't possibly have hindered the teams' efforts more than their own commanders' conservative tactics and apparent ignorance of the school layout. The dispatch and surveillance tapes indicate that these two factors played an enormous part in the sluggish response. In the case of Dave Sanders, they may well have finished what Harris and Klebold started.

Dunaway has characterized the immediate-entry plan as a dicey solution to a bad situation, an effort to mount an "active shooter response" more quickly than conventional SWAT procedures would allow. But as the Arapahoe County officers conceded at the commission hearing last month, that response actually amounted to a clock-burning room-to-room search for hostages. This was not a high-risk rapid invasion, designed to take out terrorists, but a systematic evacuation that involved busting through dozens of locked doors and setting up officers to direct the flow of evacuees to safety. By its very nature, the procedure was bound to take hours in a building as large as Columbine, but it had the advantage of not exposing anyone's backside -- especially not those of the commanders outside, who authorized the laborious search and then failed to modify it, even as it became clear that the only shooting still going on was the teams' own cover fire.

The tactical blunder was compounded by several miscalculations concerning the best points of entry into the school and the direction the search should take. There's no reason to doubt that the SWAT teams wanted to get to the "hot zones" as quickly as possible. Some members of the team even had a personal stake in the matter; DiManna, for instance, had a son and a niece at Columbine that day. From the 911 calls, it seems clear that the commanders had a pretty good idea that the hot zones were the library (the last place the shooters had been observed, firing out the windows shortly before their suicides), the cafeteria and the science area. But SWAT leader Manwaring, unfamiliar with the layout of the school since a recent renovation, apparently didn't know how to get to those areas. Working from hastily drawn maps provided by students failed to solve the problem; an hour after he arrived, the report states, Manwaring was still trying to find a decent floor plan.

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