"When you aren't practicing somewhere someone is and, when you meet him, he will win." This thought-provoking saying was passed along to me many years ago by Terry Thorpe, a warrior friend who lost his courageous final battle with Agent Orange.
The Virginia Tech Massacre has been followed by the 'talking heads," and "experts" offering their versions of "would have, could have, should have." I won't be weighing in on this debate because I wasn't there, nor do I have all the facts. The real experts will gather and analyze the facts and provide us with their analysis in due time.
What is known, though, is that the Virginia Tech Massacre is the deadliest active shooter incident in U.S. history. Active shooters have posed a significant challenge to law enforcement, including SWAT, since the 1984 McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro (San Diego County), Calif. The deadly 1999 Columbine shooting rampage forced law enforcement to realize that time is not on our side, and rapid intervention is necessary to prevent more casualties. The result has been to train first responders in rapid deployment tactics, a radical departure from the previous surround and wait for SWAT tactic.
We know that history repeats itself, and that history also evolves over time. Let's go back to the mid 1960s when LAPD created the SWAT concept specifically to counter a growing threat of criminal sniper attacks. The twin catalyst was the 1965 Watts Riot and the deadly 1966 University of Texas Tower sniper. In both of these incidents, traditional law enforcement response proved less than effective.
Snipers are nothing more than long-range active shooters, sharing many of the same traits of today's close-range active shooters. Law enforcement response to all active shooters should be the same: rapid, effective neutralization of the threat.
One trait many active shooters share is that they plan, prepare, and practice their attacks. They also study police response tactics. Active shooters are on a mission. And we need to be on a mission to stop them.
Which takes us back to the opening sentence of this column: "When you aren't practicing, somewhere someone is …."
So the question all of us need to ask ourselves is, "Are we really ready?"
One thing is certain, active shooters are most definitely ready, and are learning from history, and adapting their tactics to counter ours. Active shooters know and study our tactics, and we must study them and know their tactics in order to stop them.
Above all, active shooters are on a deadly mission. They want to murder as many people as possible before they are stopped. And, yes, they expect to be stopped, either by the police or themselves. Many, if not most, active shooters do not expect to survive the incident. And it is this lack of fear of death that makes active shooters such a daunting challenge for law enforcement. I think we all realize the serious challenge we face and the incredibly high degree of dedication we need to successfully accomplish each and every mission we go on. Because we never know when or where the next "big one" will occur.
Virginia Tech taught us a valuable lesson: Time is definitely not on our side, even when we've prepared, planned, and practiced for the "big one." All of us need to perform an honest gut-check of our active shooter response. Are our scramble response and our deployment time from notification to the scene fast enough? Do we have the right equipment and weaponry to counter the unexpected? Are our shooting skills up to par?
And what are we doing about anticipating the next "big one," should it occur in our jurisdiction? Active shooter rampages are like lightning strikes. They can occur anytime, anywhere, without warning.
My strong belief is that American law enforcement—especially SWAT—is capable of meeting and defeating the active shooter challenge. However, it will take a lot of hard work, preparation, planning, practice, and dedication to our mission for us to protect and save the lives of innocent people, and it may require the risk of our own lives to do so.
Remember, someone somewhere out there is practicing to defeat you. The question is, are you really ready to defeat him?