SWAT Leader's Defense of Columbine Response: Too Little, Much Too Late

At several points in his memoir Bullet Riddled, Grant Whitus declares that members of the pain-in-the-ass general public — or worse, the pantywaist liberal media — are in no position to second-guess the life-and-death decisions he had to make in the course of his eventful career as a SWAT team leader for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

It's a standard cop refrain: You haven't been where I've been, so shut your piehole.

"I want to say to the critics: Okay, if you think it's so damn easy, then you go patrol a beat," reads one passage. "I bet you wouldn't make one day with me before you pissed yourself."

If that sounds not only pissy but a mite defensive, there's a reason. Whitus was a key responder in several violent tragedies that attracted intense media scrutiny, including Albert Petrosky's 1995 rampage through an Albertson's parking lot, Marvin Heemeyer's 2004 attack on Granby with a bulldozer converted into a tank, and the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis. But the episode for which he's best known — and one that plays a central role in his book — is the SWAT response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, a grand display of impotence that exposed the inadequacy of then-prevailing tactics and changed the rules of engagement. 

The subtitle of Bullet Riddled claims that it's the story of "The First SWAT Officer Inside Columbine." But that isn't strictly true, as Whitus himself admits in his account. The first team to enter the school did so on the east side shortly after noon on April 20, 1999 — more than 45 minutes after the attack began and right around the same time that the two teen gunmen committed suicide in the library. Whitus's team entered on the west side through a teacher's lounge an hour later, then began an agonizingly slow room-to-room search, evacuating hundreds of students. That team didn't reach wounded teacher Dave Sanders, who was in a science room with a sign proclaiming "1 BLEEDING TO DEATH" prominently displayed to the outside world, until ninety minutes into its search. Sanders died shortly before a medic arrived. The library, where most of the killing took place, was the last room reached by the team, which discovered the bodies of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris — much  to Whitus's frustration. ("I wanted so badly to be the one to kill those two.")

In 2002, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office settled a lawsuit filed by the Sanders family over his death for $1.5 million. Now here's Whitus, more than a decade later, still insisting his guys did nothing wrong. (Well, almost nothing wrong; he upbraids his own gunner for ducking a possible firefight.) Any suggestions to the contrary are just "bullshit," "Monday-morning quarterbacking," "a game of casting stones by a bunch of assholes talking about something they had no insight on or understanding of."

To give Whitus his due, his team was working on a lot of bad information as they tried to find the wounded teacher and clear the school. It's also true that, except for what happened to Sanders, the SWAT response was largely irrelevant at Columbine; most of the damage was done (and the shooters neutralized by their own hand) before the teams could deploy, which is why law enforcement agencies now train first responders to aggressively pursue an active shooter rather than set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT while precious minutes tick by and unarmed civilians die. 

Still, it's strange that Whitus is so incurious about what happened to the east-side team, and that he doesn't mention at all the communication breakdowns within the Jeffco command center, which had access to much better information than the teams inside the building.

A Westword review of 911 calls and dispatch traffic in 2000-2001 uncovered many contradictions, distortions and misleading statements in the "official" version of the police response contained in the sheriff's report, and it's unsettling to find Whitus relying on the same tired excuses for why Sanders wasn't found sooner or why the library was the last place entered. Every cop shop in the country seems to have learned the bitter lessons of Columbine — except for the folks who were there. 

Many of those folks, Whitus included, would have charged into the school without hesitation and put their lives on the line to take out the gunmen if they'd had the opportunity. Although Whitus isn't above questioning the courage of some teammates who act like "pussies" or need to "fuckin' man up," his own ballsiness is beyond reproach. He's at the front of the line for one grim, intense situation after another in Bullet Riddled, and after a while you begin to savor the savage tone of contempt he displays for bureaucrats and liberals; it's the contempt that a man who's been through hell reserves for lesser beings who haven't been there.

He describes former Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey as "so damn scared that he was shaking" as he apologizes to Whitus's team for mischaracterizing the Platte Canyon operation, in which one hostage and the gunman died, as a "bad shoot." He even manages to misspell Storey's name in the bargain. 

Still, a little more reflection about the toll that SWAT operations take on a person, even a person like Whitus, would have been welcome.

There are passing references in Bullet Riddled to heavy drinking, depression, a divorce and traumatic memories, but to delve into that kind of stuff in any kind of thoughtful way would, I suppose, risk being called a pussy. Any concerns about the increasing militarization of police are dismissed as liberal cant; we need heavier firepower because bad guys like Marvin "Killdozer" Heemeyer have it, too, Whitus argues: "After events like Ferguson and Baltimore, some cops are not as aggressive as they should be.... But like it or not, we are going to have to be trusted with weapons and equipment that are off-limits to civilians." 

That's just fine with Whitus. Anybody who doesn't like it, well, they can just go piss themselves. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast