Law Enforcement

Boulder King Soopers Shooting and the Columbine Effect

A screen capture from a retrospective about the 1999 attack on Columbine High School.
A screen capture from a retrospective about the 1999 attack on Columbine High School. YouTube
The March 22 attack on a Boulder King Soopers that killed ten people seemed to stretch on for an entire afternoon. But police communication recordings released in the wake of the tragic incident reveal that the total elapsed time between the first call and the suspect being taken into custody was just over fifty minutes — and among the reasons are lessons learned by the flawed response to the 1999 assault on Columbine High School that left fifteen dead, including the two shooters.

At Columbine, police took hours to secure the building, and the delay almost certainly led to teacher Dave Sanders bleeding to death while waiting for help. But law enforcement officers in Boulder engaged the King Soopers shooter within minutes — and while Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley lost his life in the process, the procedure almost certainly saved many others.

That was a lesson learned from Columbine.

Alan Prendergast dissected the police tactics at Columbine in a December 2013 post following a shooting at Arapahoe High School that killed one student, Claire Davis. In that case, a school resource officer "pursued the shooter into the school," Prendergast wrote, and "a massive tactical response was on scene in minutes."

The approach was taken in part because the reaction to Columbine "exposed all the shortcomings of traditional SWAT procedures — setting up a perimeter and command post, essentially ceding the school to an active shooter on the theory that to barge in would put more lives at risk," Prendergast pointed out. "The Columbine kids were told, in effect, that officer safety trumped their own; they were expected to defend themselves with pencils while armed officers waited outside. Teacher Dave Sanders died from his wounds before the tedious, room-by-room extraction procedure could bring him out; the killers had committed suicide hours earlier, but the SWAT teams didn't know that yet because they didn't find the bodies until the very end of their search."

The reaction time in Boulder was much faster, as evidenced by radio chatter compiled by 9News. The first reference to an active shooter came in at 2:32 p.m. on March 22, with a communiqué from 2:34 p.m. citing at least two parties down in front of the store that didn't match the description of the shooter. At 2:36 p.m., officers made entry into the store and almost immediately took fire, and 2:38 p.m. brought this distressing message: "Officer down inside the store.... We're in a gunfight."

click to enlarge Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley was killed during the response to the March 22 King Soopers shooting. - CITY OF BOULDER
Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley was killed during the response to the March 22 King Soopers shooting.
City of Boulder
The officer in question was Talley, a father of seven whose most significant appearance in the news prior to this week was back in 2013, when he helped retrieve a family of ducks from a drainage ditch.

Chaos reigned for the next twenty minutes or so, with a 3:03 p.m. call acknowledging that the shooter was at an "unknown location" inside. But by 3:19 p.m., another aggressive move by law enforcers began with the warning "Start pushing slow, but be advised: We do not know where he is." Contact was made with the shooter one minute later, at 3:20 p.m., and he was in custody between six and eight minutes later. Because some reports suggested as many as three shooters, officers remained on high alert for hours more — but the actual danger was already in the past.

During an appearance on MSNBC, retired ATF Special-Agent-in-Charge Jim Cavanaugh made it clear that the mistakes made at Columbine High School played a major role in Boulder's response.

"Columbine was a sea change in how we responded," Cavanaugh said. "The protocol post-Columbine changed. And here`s the thing we always leave out of that discussion: It changed because criminal behavior changed. It wasn`t changing just because the police decided to change it. It changed because the assailants and criminals prior to that were operating on a greed motive — a hostage-taking motive, or 'I want you to give me some money' motive. 'I'm stuck in the bank, I want to get out of here.' And then Columbine changed, because these two killers in Columbine just wanted to kill everybody. That was the change."

Prior to that, Cavanaugh continued, best practices called for "law enforcement to wait outside for SWAT. ... That was the response to an active shooter. And the way that everybody was trained post-Columbine was, you know, a few patrol officers get there, you try to team up, you know, in a squad of three, you get your vest, your long guns, you try to penetrate."

That's what appears to have happened in Boulder. And while the price paid by Talley was heartbreaking, the casualty count would almost certainly have been even higher had police used an approach dating back before 1999...and Columbine.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts