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Examining the Navy Yard shooting, three months on

After the efforts to establish responsibility, remember the bravery of the responding officers


PoliceOne Columnist Lance Eldridge was on the periphery of the active shooter incident at the Washington Naval Yard. “They’ve evacuated everyone to one site and have provided some armed protection while they search for the other shooters...” Eldridge said.

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Three months ago today, Aaron Alexis drove his rented Toyota Prius onto the Washington Navy Yard. Wearing a black backpack, he entered Building 197, the home of the Navy’s Sea Systems Command and, at 0816, shot his first victim.

Immediately a four-person active-shooter team from the Naval District of Washington Police assembled and reached the building.

On arrival, the officers faced an uncertain and rapidly evolving situation.

According to news reports, the team entered the building at 0823 after hearing further shots. A little over an hour later, after several encounters with law enforcement officers and a final, violent pitched gun battle, responding officers from multiple agencies killed Alexis in a third-floor office.

During that hour Alexis murdered 12 victims, all Navy civilian employees and contract personnel — one of whom was an armed security guard.

Inaccurate Connections Drawn
The tragedy quickly turned political in a tawdry town known for little else. Claims of poor preparedness soon emerged. On the day of the tragedy the Department of Defense’s Inspector General’s Office coincidentally released an unfortunately titled report, “Navy Commercial Access Control System Did Not Effectively Mitigate Access Control Risks.”

The report concluded that Navy Installations Command officials had attempted to reduce access control costs and, as a result, “52 convicted felons received routine, unauthorized installation access, which placed military personnel, dependents, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk.”

The felons were contractors who had received access without a background check. Shoppers probably walk by more convicted felons on a Saturday afternoon at the mall.

Though the installations involved in the inspection had been redacted from the released document, the report had little to do with the day’s events. On average the felonies occurred 13 years earlier. The Washington Naval District is huge, and includes installations as far afield as Annapolis, Patuxent River, Joint Base Andrews, and Bethesda, along with seven locations as part of Naval Support Activity Washington.

Further, Alexis was not a convicted felon. The issues for him may have had more to do with an improper assessment of past erratic behavior discovered during a background check. The IG report, however, could not have come at a worse time for Navy officials. Others quickly capitalized on the disaster.

Guns and Mental Health
Gun control advocates cited the murders to support their assertion that access to guns is the cause of violence.

Others focused on the nation’s abysmal track record on mental health treatment (as if the nation has one approach to assisting — or not — the mentally ill). The media found mental health professionals ready to describe Alexis as a victim of the failure of this so-called “system” to treat his mental instability.

National politicians have now promised to investigate the tragedy and establish the truth, as they see it, of that day’s violent act. They will give those with an agenda another soapbox on which to voice their grievances and provide an opportunity for high-sounding but ineffectual rhetoric to shape the by-now familiar debate.

No real solution lends itself to legislative remedy, and the nation and its citizens will be no safer for Congressional efforts.
The Bottom Line
The investigation will produce a hodgepodge of sound bites that blame something or someone else for Alexis’ horrendous crime. Maybe it was his access to firearms that led him astray. Maybe he didn’t get the mental health support he needed. Maybe he wasn’t taking his medication properly. Maybe he should not have received a security clearance. Maybe it was poor gate security. Maybe his employer shouldn’t have hired him. Maybe it was a slow response by law enforcement.

Maybe it was sequestration. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

What has been lost in all the political posturing and the bumbling efforts to establish responsibility has been the bravery of the responding officers and the monumental tasks associated with securing and then evacuating workers from the Washington Navy Yard.

Imagine a small-town police department, with the help of a number of outside agencies, having to not only stop an active shooter and secure a single building, but to secure the whole community, building-by-building, and then evacuate the citizens in a safe and orderly manner. Under tremendous pressure, on the morning of 16 September, police officers had these responsibilities.

Hopefully, self-promoting politicians and celebrity experts with news media access will remember what really happened on that Monday morning, when one man chose to commit a horrendously violent act — and officers of courage stopped him.

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.