The suspects are armed. The police are called. To save lives, the time-honored strategy for the first officers on the scene is "time, talk, and tactics."
But last year's shooting spree at Columbine High School is causing police in Colorado - and across much of the nation - to rethink the conventional wisdom of "buying time." In that tragic sequence of events, the two young gunmen killed 13 students and wounded 21 others within 16 minutes of opening fire.
As a result, police training and policy are undergoing a significant but controversial shift. Instead of being taught to wait for the SWAT team to arrive, street officers are receiving the training and weaponry to take immediate action during incidents that clearly involve suspects' use of deadly force.
"Columbine was a seminal event," says Chief Ron Sloan of the Arvada, Colo., police department. "You had two individuals intent on killing as many people as possible.... It kind of shattered our innocence: The unthinkable now is thinkable."
Standard issue: semiautomatic rifles
Under the new "rapid deployment" approach, police in Arvada, just west of Denver, are being trained to take charge if they arrive at a scene of a shooting in progress. They will carry AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and be equipped with ballistic helmets and vests - in hope of ending any mass shooting before additional lives are lost.
"We're talking about street-ready cops having the equipment and training necessary to respond immediately," says Arvada Deputy Chief Ted Mink. "Law enforcement can't afford to sit back on its heels. It's all about public safety."
Since Columbine, countless police departments nationwide have taken similar steps. "In every place that I'm aware of, there has been a profound shift," says David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. "They have instituted a far higher level than ever before of training for officers to respond to an active shooting. Columbine was the catalyst, without a doubt."
The rapid-deployment concept itself isn't new. Organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have offered training on the technique since the mid-1990s.
But Maj. Steve Ijames, operations commander for the Springfield Police Department in Missouri and an IACP instructor, says demand for his rapid-deployment classes increased dramatically after Columbine. Although similar events predated Columbine, it has become a watershed for law-enforcement agencies, who began to confront the reality that they too might face such an incident.
"We've never seen anything like it before, and I hope we never do again. But it's from the crises other agencies go through that we learn how to respond better in our own communities," he says. "It makes you think of the saying, 'There but for the grace of God, go I.' "
The rapid-deployment technique is controversial, however, and some departments eschew it, says Major Ijames. "A number of agencies are continuing with the 'time, talk and tactics' strategy."
Some chiefs say the cost of equipping their entire force with such firepower and protective gear - as much as $5,000 per officer - is prohibitive.
But Dr. Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer, sees such reluctance as indefensible. "Not training officers in this technique is, to me, like putting cops out onto the street without guns." Even though many officers will never fire their guns, they still are trained to use them, he says.
"When agencies try to avoid high-risk situations at all costs, and wait for SWAT to arrive, the problem is that the cost is going to be innocent victims," he says. "Unfortunately, we've had an increase in school shootings with mass casualties. Police chiefs can no longer bury their heads in the sand." Others emphasize that strategic decisions must be made at the scene, based on the particular circumstances.
In Colorado's Boulder County, the sheriff's department began training officers to handle mass shootings several years ago.
But even with appropriate training and equipment, arriving officers aren't encouraged to storm in on a barricaded suspect unless shots are being fired, says Deputy Kevin Parker.
"It's very situational. If it's at a school, and there are students inside, we wouldn't want officers waiting outside," he says. But in a domestic dispute or bank robbery, officers would opt for a more traditional approach in the absence of gunfire, he says.
Moreover, when shooting is active, officers must make a common-sense decision about entering a scene, adds Sgt. Greg Schumann, who oversees training for the Boulder County Sheriff's Office. "If you think you'll go in and get ambushed, that's not going to accomplish much. You have to base your decision on the information you have at that moment."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society