Columbine, Green Bay, and Warfighting

By Dave Smith Newsline

The fortunate discovery of a plan by some Green Bay high school students to replicate the tragedy of Columbine reminds us of the need to reflect on how we, as first responders, will deal with such an evil plan if it makes it the execution phase.

I remember interviewing several of the first officers to arrive at Columbine High School when the call first came out. In spite of the fog of battle, the intensity of stress, and limited resources the Littleton, CO officers formed an ad hoc entry team and attempted to essentially re-take the school immediately. Once a commander arrived they were recalled and the standard hostage-taking procedures were initiated.

It is easy to criticize the law enforcement response that day, but the truth is the Columbine tragedy was a paradigm-shifting moment in the philosophy of law enforcement everywhere. The now common term “active shooter” was almost unheard of and despite the years of subsequent training and discussion, the debate continues today on the philosophical foundation for dealing with that type of threat.

If one was to hand-pick officers and deputies to deal with that terrible day in April of 1999 it would have been hard to pick a better group of folks. That ad hoc entry team was composed of SWAT officers with their basic gear in hand and a clear mission to stop the threat, and yet they were called back. In the time since I interviewed these heroic officers and deputies, I read the Marine Corps fine manual on winning wars and battles called Warfighting.

Introduced in 1989 by Gen. A. M. Gray, Jr., USMC, this text is officially called FMFM 1, Warfighting, and is a remarkably brilliant work if, for no other reason, we consider that it is a short, readable document that embodies an entire military philosophy. Gen. Gray was a no nonsense fellow that wanted the Corps to get back to its essential mission. While this book is aimed at the Marines in a few short pages it speaks volumes to law enforcement from top command to all first responders.

As I recall those interviews, done on the grounds of Columbine High School on the first anniversary of the April massacre, I am reminded how those first responders literally embodied the philosophy of Gen. Gray:

1. First, they had a clear mission, to stop the shooting in the school and secure it.

2. They had a plan, loose and fluid, but still an overall plan to sweep the school.

3. Finally, they had training. They had confidence in themselves and their teammates.

I could get into the emotional, mental strengths of these fellows as well, for without courage and boldness how could they have even made the entry into the chaos and threat so great that day, but for law enforcement General Gray’s three points are essential to prepare for the unknown day when terror will strike again.

Tactics need to be taught and practiced at every level. Every shift should practice movement against active shooters in real theatres in which the struggle may occur: our schools, our public buildings, our transportation facilities and wherever our imagination might lead us to prepare. Remember, we are not just preparing for self destructive high school students we are preparing for terrorists, extremists and mass killers as well. (Read Tom Clancy’s book The Teeth of the Tiger for his prediction of how terrorists would use active shooter techniques against America, and how local officers will have to deal toe-to-toe with them.)

The real lesson of the Green Bay arrests is that we must continue to train, train, train for the day one of these terrible incidents starts again so we can stop it as quickly as possible with the least risk to our officers, deputies, troopers or agents. That is the goal of the concept of Warfighting and I hope all commanders and supervisors take time to read this short but important document that could ultimately save many lives.

After reading it, it is essential we train and learn the tactics needed in active shooting situations. Warfighting defines tactics as; ‘…the art and science of winning engagements and battles. It includes the use of firepower and maneuver, the integration of different arms, and the immediate exploitation of success to defeat the enemy…the product of judgment and creativity…’

The key to all of this is top-to-bottom training and confidence in the first responders to understand the mission and execute the tactics needed to resolve the conflict.

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