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Public Violence: A Decade of Denial

Written by Lou Ann Hamblin

It has been 10 years since this nation experienced the life-altering tragedy at Columbine. During that time, there have been literally hundreds of articles and books published, training courses designed and delivered and policies written to reflect the incident and the lessons learned as a result of the tragedy.

That said, is law enforcement and the rest of our society ready for the next one? Are we systemically prepared? Ready or not, the next one is coming. Headlines continue to fill the daily news. “Five Kansas Teens Charged with Threat to School,” “Police Arrest Six Boys in Plot: School Was Target for Alleged Murder Conspiracy,” “Three Teens Plotted Murder.”

Many of these suspects continue to reference and display their admiration of Harris and Klebold’s work, including Seung-Hui Cho. The threat of this level of violence remains a reality. It cannot be denied that it will continue. Thankfully, there is some recent evidence that police agencies are employing lessons learned from previous random or not-so-random acts of violence. For example; on March 29, 2009, Robert Stewart (45 years old) burst into a North Carolina nursing home looking for his wife who was employed there.

Stewart shot and killed a total of eight residents and wounded at least three others, including a nurse and the first responding Carthage Police Officer Justin Garner. Garner, a sole first responder, recognized the need for immediate neutralization and quickly ended the killings with one .40 caliber bullet to Stewart’s chest.

Most law enforcement agencies have employed some form of “active shooter” or “rapid deployment” policy, associated equipment and training into their response repertoires, including firearms and tactics training specific to the school resource officer.

Public schools will remain a focal point of active shooter preparedness training for a variety of reasons. Due to this type of public display of violence with seemingly few boundaries, the training must not only be systemic in nature but it should also include those who work and frequent all known soft target environments.

In order to assist in their own survival those working in soft target environments must be trained adequately for these types of situations. How much has been shared with communities in order to educate them on preparedness; awareness; planning and acting on when violence occurs at their places of employment, leisure and retirement facilities, government occupied buildings, shopping and entertainment venues, places of worship, hospitals, etc? Lastly, how much information sharing is considered too much? Some law enforcement organizations have chosen to take a leadership approach in educating their communities. Others have tried, but the information is not always well received.

Some will argue that a percentage of our population exhibit low levels of understanding and bystander apathy for other communities that have suffered from mass casualties at the hands of nothing more than domestic terrorism. “Realistically, what are the chances of a mass murder happening in our community anyway?”

The Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act (LEOSA, 2004) was written and signed because Congress understood the national epidemic our society faces with respect to violence. Many officers are taking advantage of the “have gun will travel” law, however, they are also running into road blocks on privately owned commercial property. This poses a problem for those educated and trained people who are interested in retaining some control of their own survival.

Experience a gun-free zone and subsequent security staff while attempting to enter onto a Disney-owned property. Then experience the security hub where your weapon will be seized and you will be “made safe” to explore the Magic Kingdom. Experience the screening area at the Stratosphere’s indoor ride in Las Vegas.

In both instances, you will also experience security officers armed only with prep radios, elite surveillance systems and, of course, optimism. Since the active shooter incident that occurred inside the New York, New York Casino in Las Vegas on July 6, 2007, consider adding casinos and theme parks to the list of soft target environments as they fit the profile and are “gun free” to off-duty law enforcement officers regardless of federal law.

Understand that allowing off-duty officers to carry a weapon nationally is only one solution but a forward-thinking solution. Unfortunately, the power of forward thinking will always combat the power of denial.

Some shopping mall security firms have an action plan in place with respect to dealing with an “active shooter.” Some have stated that because they are unarmed they are instructed to follow at a “safe distance” and call dispatch via the radio providing current information. A distance of 50 yards was the perceived safe distance. In addition, “everyone on staff had been trained and prepared to handle that type of situation.”

Some would agree that the only thing they were prepared and trained to handle is the title of “bullet sponge.” Statistically, uniform security are primary targets for someone who is on a mass murder expedition looking for bullet sponges, especially those who are ill equipped to meet violence with equal or greater violence.

In addition to private mall security, there is a large contingency of college campuses that do not have their own police department, much less armed campus “public safety.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been cited as determining whether campus police need weapons in the performance of their police duties.

OSHA recently sided with the Princeton University Administration in its contention that “Princeton Township and Borough Police will be there when needed, and on-campus public safety officers still do not need guns.” Perhaps Princeton does not want to portray the wrong image to students and faculty, i.e. that armed public safety personnel equates to an unsafe learning environment.

Until there is a common understanding with respect to the responsibility of public safety, until there is a true paradigm shift, this philosophical and ethical dilemma will continue: Public image vs. public safety.

In California and Washington State, OSHA regulations require safety programs in all workplaces that include the prevention of “reasonable foreseeable” assault on employees. Shouldn’t this include members of the public safety profession?

How can campus public safety officials best contribute to the ultimate goal of expeditious suspect(s) neutralization in this type of arena with inadequate tools? Are they truly just bullet sponges waiting to happen? Law enforcement professionals understand that private security and campus public safety have their limitations.

Unfortunately with the mindset of some organizations, a tragedy has to occur before policy, training and equipment inventories are made. Some refer to those changes as lessons learned; some refer to them as foreseen tragedies.

The bottom line is that yesterday’s level of security is inadequate for today’s level of violence. Not everyone is on board with the understanding that a problem exists, much less does everyone agree what the proper steps are required to solve it.

Lou Ann Hamblin currently works for the patrol division of a Michigan-based police department. She instructs locally and nationally in the areas of instructor development, officer survival, female officers and specialty units to include school resource officers. She holds a master’s degree in human performance technology and instructional design from the University of Michigan. For more information, see LouKa Tactical Training www.loukatactical.com or e-mail her at louann@loukatactical.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009

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