Monday, April 16, 2007

32 Murdered on Virginia Tech Campus - Not Exactly A Surprise

Monday April 16, 2007

Associated Press Writer

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP)- A gunman opened fire in a Virginia Tech dorm and then, two hours later, in a classroom across campus Monday, killing at least 30 people in the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history, government officials told The Associated Press. The gunman was killed, bringing the death toll to 31. Update: Total now 33, including gunman.

``Today the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions,'' said Virginia Tech president Charles Steger. ``The university is shocked and indeed horrified.''

It was not immediately clear whether the gunman was shot by police or took his own life. His name was not released, and investigators offered no motive for the attack. It was not known if the gunman was a student.

The shootings spread panic and confusion on campus, with students complaining that the university did not warn them about the first burst of gunfire until more than two hours later.

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My Commentary

This was a terrible story to wake up to. It's horrifying.
But I can't say that it is surprising to me. Story from NY Times.

I studied this issue when I was in college. Law Enforcement and Academia refer to this as an "active shooter" incident. This has been a problem that has been widely debated over the past several years.

College campuses (and schools in general) are notoriously open to this kind of incident. This is one of the biggest holes in U.S. "homeland security". The country has not learned from Columbine, and other similar events.

It is easy for a suspect to walk into one of these campuses to do a mass shooting attack. And if a domestic suspect can so easily attack one of our college campuses.... then it would be extremely easy for Al Qaeda to do it. This debate has to be framed in the wider context of Homeland security and terrorism preparedness.

This is part of the big hole in security that the Bush Administration has left open. It has been due to a complete lack of leadership at the top.

The North Hollywood Bank Robbery of 1997 and the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 are probably the two biggest incidents that changed how Law Enforcement approaches active shooters. After these incidents (and several others over the years) many police departments realized that they had to respond to these events more quickly. As a result, many departments formed rapid response units. These units are typically made up of regular street officers who have additional training and are allowed to carry assault rifles & body armor in their patrol cars. These officers can go directly into the area of danger to attempt to neutralize the threat as soon as they arrive at the scene.

This response was needed because it typically takes SWAT teams 10-15 minutes or more to respond to these kinds of incidents (far too late). Many SWAT members are not working at the same time, and have to respond from home or from various parts of a metro area. Equipment has to be brought to an active shooting scene from a central station. Once at a scene, it can take another 5-10 minutes to assess the situation and develop a plan. All of this takes too long. In fact, the original concept of SWAT, which was born in Los Angeles, was not designed to deal with the kind of active shooter situations that we see today, where several people are being shot execution style, over a short time frame. SWAT was created to deal with hostage situations and barricaded individuals, and to carry out dangerous surprise raids. SWAT is more of a long-haul approach, where teams take several minutes to set up and are prepared to wait for several hours before a resolution is reached. But for active shooter situations, SWAT is not very effective at all. Active shooting incidents are almost always over and done with by the time SWAT units arrive. This has been well known for quite some time and is proven over and over again, yet Police departments and local governments across the country have been slow to make the changes necessary to effectively deal with this problem.
In the case of Virginia Tech, SWAT units were already in the area or on alert after the smaller initial shooting, but were still unable to reach victims at the second location in time. However, first responders (who were probably not fully prepared) did appear to arrive while the shooting was still underway.

For active shooters, Law Enforcement needs a time sensitive response... This has been what the Academic community and the Law Enforcement community has been debating for years now. This is how the idea of rapid response units came about. The consensus that has developed on this issue is that first responders are most likely going to have the best chance at stopping such events in progress...and therefore, first responders should be properly equipped to handle these situations.

The problem with the rapid response concept has been a lack of funding, a lack of training, and an uneven implimentation across the country. Most big city departments now have some kind of plan in place for dealing with active shooters, especially in the wake of 911 with the percieved threat of terrorism. However, many of the smaller communities, have not put plans in place. This is problematic, considering that many of our college campuses are in smaller suburban and rural areas. County Sherrifs and small town Police Departments must now sit down and come up with plans to deal with this kind of problem. The small Police Departments that don't have plans and procedures in place, must now come up with an effective policy, and for those Police agencies that do have some kind of plan in place, they must refine those plans.

Even for those places where a rapid response plan is in place, there has not been uniformity regarding procedures. For instance, in St. Louis County Missouri, only patrol Sergeants are allowed to have the assualt rifles....while in other departments, any trained officer can have the extra firepower. In my opinion, the more the merrier, because it's all about decreasing the response time, so that suspects can be killed or cornered before they are allowed to murder more people. Rapid response plans will not prevent all deaths and are not designed to. The aim of rapid response units is to reduce the number of people killed in these kinds of events.

I don't know what the plan was for Virginia Tech or for the Blacksburg Virginia Police Department or Montgomery County Sheriff. But from what I can tell, the response appeared confused and may have been botched. It doesn't appear that any rapid response plan was effectively used. But the large size of the campus should be taken into account. This kind of confusion is common when you have various police agencies (probably well over half a dozen in this case) attempting to respond to this kind of call, and trying to communicate and plan on the fly as the situation evolves.

This also highlights the need to have effective campus Police on hand. College Campuses and High Schools of a certain size should be required by law to have an adequate police staff on hand. Campus police typically will know the area the best- knowing how to get to various buildings, specific offices, knowing the roads in and out, etc. Local police typically have trouble finding specific buildings on such large sprawling campuses... so it's unrealistic to expect them to quickly locate a suspect.

Local police departments in these kinds of communities (along with State & Federal agencies) must practice together at least once a year, and should become familiar with major attractions like college campuses, malls, hospitals, etc, so that confusion can be minimized.

It is also important for College campuses to have certain security procedures in place to begin with, so that it would not be so easy for a suspect to walk freely throughout these kinds of facilities without being challenged...either by systems or by people. Campuses need badge systems for access to buildings...regardless of how much students will complain. There should also be an ability for campus buildings to be locked down and secured (from a central location if needed) before people are allowed in and out. I don't know if such systems would have stopped this shooting considering that the suspect could have been connected with the University as a student or former student. But it would help tremendously.

This hole in Americas domestic security can no longer be ignored. The Bush administration will be forced (unfortunately they have to be forced into doing things) into making policy and funding security initiatives for dealing with this problem.

Now some people will call for more gun control. I am pro-gun control, but it is not clear whether that would have made a difference in this case. We don't have enough information on this case yet to determine if that was a factor. The suspect was not likely someone with a criminal record who would have been prevented from obtaining a weapon. So that would not be an issue if that is the case. Ban guns altogether? That's not going to happen in a country where the right to bear arms is protected under the 2nd amendment of the Constitution. In order to ban weapons, a Constitutional amendment would be required....and that would be impossible. The NRA, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in U.S. history, would work very hard to squash any effort to ban firearms. So in this particular case I don't see the issue of gun control or a lack thereof as being a major factor. Like I mentioned, I am someone who is in favor of gun control. But gun control cannot prevent all of these incidents...and is not designed to. Gun control is designed to make it harder for criminals to obtain guns through legitimate means, to force gun dealers to keep records and play by the rules, to keep certain kinds of weapons & ammunition off the street, and to allow authorities to track gun sales. Gun control does not equal a ban on all firearms.

The fact is, in a country where gun ownership is legal, there will always be a good supply of these weapons. People will have access to them. So I see no way to prevent someone (with no criminal record) from obtaining a weapon to carry out one of these horrific acts. There is no way to screen law abiding purchasers of guns to determine what their intentions are. And even if you make it harder for citizens to get guns through legitimate means, they will still have access to firearms on the street- via the underground market. Therefore the focus must be on how to prevent or mitigate these kinds of attacks after the point where someone has obtained a firearm... more counseling and mental health programs, better security at vulnerable locations, better access control systems, increased deployment and better use of rapid response units, better coordination with security and local law enforcement personnel, etc.


athought said...

I'm so angry about the Virginia Tech killings that I can't sleep. Why didn't the police search for the armed shooter by bringing in more officers and methodically go through each building? These students had a right to participate in the events that occurred and keeping them informed could have saved their lives.
Does this administration have a security plan? How often do they train?
There were too many "assumptions" by cops that have no experience with the real world of domestic violence, obviously, or they would have realized they had a crazed killer on the campus.
When the campus president made a comment about having 9,000 students residing and 20,000 plus on their way to classes with no way to stop this process, I wanted to cry. The campus was at its lowest population and entrance could have been stopped to keep people out of the way.
SWAT shooting and kids standing around--what kind of morons were in charge, for God's sake? Why weren't these students evacuated?
The campus chief of police should stop talking now. Parents should be contacting their attorneys for wrongful death suits.
George Bush can't stop local stupidity, for heaven's sake. The funds for Homeland Security are there, but administrators must get off their buts and take some responsibility. Hire some cops that have been in the real world and know how to conduct a criminal investigation, folks.
I am absolutely sick that local cops didn't search the buildings and get the kids off that campus. They let them down and everyone knows it.
One photo shows one of the SWAT cops smiling as he patrols the campus after the slaughter. I'd like to see this man suspended for 30 days without pay. Who does he think he is and what on earth could he possibly find funny?
Thanks. I needed to vent.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...


College campuses, especially large campuses like VT, should have systems in place to communicate with provide warnings, information, evacuation orders, etc. Most large campuses have their own TV and radio networks, there are also local radio and TV stations, and intercoms should be installed in every building.

The ability to conduct an evacuation should be part of their procedures.

The campus should have gone to lockdown and eventually to an evacuation after the initial shooting. All buildings with students should have been cleared out by police. That could have reduced the number of potential victims.

The suspect gave Police a 2 hour lead.

I'm surprised that no one saw anything after the first shooting.... it points to inadequate security IMO. No one watching dorms?

All dorm buildings should have Police/Security assigned IMO. SOMEONE (a student, security, surveillance cameras) should have at least seen or heard something during and immediately after the first shooting.

This shooting shows the American public how easily this kind of thing can happen.... these campuses are too open. Anyone can walk onto them...and do almost anything they want before Police will be able to respond.

I would even go as far as putting officers and metal detectors on college campuses, at least in the buildings where there are classrooms and offices.

Dorms should have key access and card access only....and there should be better ID requirements.

And the Bush admin knows about these vulnerabilities. They have been dragging their *sses getting anything done... although these are local problems all across the country.... it takes leadership (and funding) from the top to get things done.

I think it's way too early to talk about lawsuits.