The Law Enforcement Response To School Shootings: A Personal Experience
Years before LCPD had SWAT or K9, and long before the term "active shooter" was coined and law enforcement agencies were faced with the dilemma of how to respond to shootings in public schools and other facilities with public access, there was a shooting at Mayfield High School.
I was working dayshift patrol in the mid-1980s. We had not yet been issued ballistic vests although they would eventually become mandatory. We had no long rifles, only shotguns. The Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority had not yet been formed and LCPD still hired its own dispatchers. We had six districts with one officer per district, one or two patrol officers who roved, and Traffic Division had five or six motor officers on duty each day. PD manpower then was less than half what it was at its pre-Covid peak in 2020, so a little less than100 sworn personnel, which included administrative staff, supervisors, detectives and narcs. There were no school resource officers, federal task forces, specialized units like community policing or TNT (targeting neighborhood threats) or any other identifiers on a uniform that let the world know you were special. If a cop in uniform was assigned to Patrol Division, he/she was expected to do a job that encompassed all the aforementioned but without any fancy titles.
When the alert tone went off that day it grabbed the attention of every officer on duty, which was its intended purpose. Alert tones are only used for hot calls and even if in the middle of conversation all talking ceased and all ears focused on the nature of the alert. In this case the broadcast advised shots fired in the administrative offices of Mayfield High School by a student with a shotgun. As we responded, further information advised that the student had been kicked out of the school only to return a short time later with a shotgun. He went into the administrative offices and began firing.
Calls of this nature generate radio chatter from the various units responding, all of whom want to let dispatch know that they are en route, and none of which can be understood because units are all trying to transmit simultaneously. In slang, this is called "walking all over each other." Experienced officers don't try to transmit, they just accelerate to the scene. Dispatch will generally give a "10-3", which means "stop transmitting" so that the air is freed up for those on scene.
I forget the district I had that day or even where I was or what I was doing other than I was on patrol. I do know that several of us in uniform, patrol and traffic, arrived simultaneously. One of those officers on a motor was the now-deceased David Eckhart, an intelligent man and fine officer who would rise through the ranks and retire as a lieutenant but unfortunately die relatively young from cerebral palsy. As we turned off of Valley Drive at Hoagland, we drove directly down the paved entrance to the school.
As we approached the buildings, the two lead units went to the front doors in case the suspect ran out. The rest of us went to a door on the south side of the wing immediately to the left of the admin offices of the school. This was by design, a spur of the moment plan that allowed the suspect to see units in front while we moved in from the rear. We did not know where the shooter was, but since we had received no information contrary to his original location in the admin office we responded based on what we knew.
I noticed Eckhart in my rearview mirror coming up on my left at a good clip and as he passed me on his motorcycle I got on the radio and told him to slow down and use my car as cover between himself and the building. He slowed and stayed to my left. If the guy with the shotgun had made his way to a classroom and could shoot from a window, or if he suddenly came out, my unit would offer at least a little protection from flying projectiles.
It was just a matter of seconds from entering the paved drive of the school to the door on the south side of that particular wing. I bailed with a shotgun as Eckhart put down his kickstand and we ran forward together. There were several of us racing to the door and as we entered peeked around the corner to make sure it was clear. Seeing that it was we began making our way down the hallway at a rapid pace that would take us directly to the admin offices. One officer to each side of the hallway, shotguns leading. You don't want to be in front of a cop shooting double ought buck out of a .12 gauge shotgun.
As we hustled past the classrooms in the hall one officer on each side turned knobs on doors to make sure they were locked. You don't want to get shot in the back by a suspect who may have slipped into a classroom and is waiting for you to pass. As we made our way down the hall, a man wearing a shirt and tie came around the corner on the opposite end of the hallway and yelled out, "We got him! He's in custody." I believe he was a vice-principal. Just seconds after he said that, dispatch relayed the same information.
The situation had been resolved by a teacher, an assistant football coach, who happened to be in the admin offices when this disgruntled kid came back into the school with a shotgun, yelling threats and blasting a round into the ceiling. When he fired his weapon the teacher ran at him, lowered his shoulder and tackled him hard, and another staff member grabbed the shotgun when it flew from his hands and slid across the floor. It was a selfless act of bravery by that teacher. We took the boy into custody. He was a problem kid with a history of disciplinary issues which had culminated in his dismissal from campus. They were not suspending him, he was being kicked out permanently. In anger he came back to do harm.
After the kid was taken away and detectives arrived to gather statements, Eckhart approached me. He thanked me for telling him to use my unit as cover, he said he never thought of that. I told him it was a technique taught to infantry. If you are assaulting an entrenched enemy and have the luxury of a tank, use it for cover. Pretty simple, really. A patrol car is certainly no tank, and a projectile from a rifle or shotgun could easily penetrate a window or thin metal skin, but better than nothing, right? Besides, that training fell right into line with what cops are taught if someone is shooting at them: use the engine block of your car for cover. The engine will stop most handguns and rifles.
The plan we made that day was on the fly. We'd not had any specialized training on how to respond to an active shooter. No officer thought about not going in. Certainly we had all dealt with barricaded subjects before but this was different. There was no discussion about setting up a perimeter or coordinating an evacuation. The only thought process was getting into the school and eliminating the source of danger. Period.
Years later, as a deputy chief, I would watch Columbine unfold on television with the rest of the admin staff from a television we had in the chief's office. By then, LCPD had SWAT & Hostage Negotiations teams, and a K9 unit, and I was the deputy chief in charge of those three units. The immediate assessment the chief and I had was to change conventional thinking about utilizing only SWAT for an incident of that nature. On average, it took SWAT 45 minutes to an hour to respond to a scene, suit up, and begin formulating a plan of action. That's way too much time. In order to save lives, we concluded that fast entry for eliminating the source of fire was absolutely necessary. But we needed weapons greater than handguns.
Two years prior, on the same television, we had watched the Los Angeles Police respond to the famous Hollywood bank robbery shootout without long rifles. They had only shotguns and officers were put into the position of finding pawn shops and firearms stores to appropriate rifles and ammo. Based on that incident, I wrote a memo through the chief petitioning city council for AR-15 rifles for patrol. The request was denied by council. "This is Las Cruces, not Los Angeles. We don't have those types of problems here." The response did not surprise me. In fact, it was what I expected. Nobody wants to admit they live in a city where these types of crimes could occur, and when they do happen (and happen they will) the response is always the same: "We never thought it would happen here."
After Columbine, I wrote a nearly identical request for long rifles and funding was approved for AR-15 rifles for patrol. I asked for the Bushmaster rifle, which was what SWAT carried. We went through a selection process to arm certain patrol officers on each shift, and a lieutenant was selected to attend specialized training for setting up a patrol rifle program. It was a success, and in later years expanded. Today, any LCPD officer who wants to carry a rifle and can qualify with it is allowed to do so, and I think that is fantastic. We did have some opposition to the program, however.
The biggest opponent to patrol carrying rifles in case of a bad incident like Columbine occurring was not a politician or some whiny left wing anti-gun liberal. It was certain members of the SWAT team. Giving long rifles to patrol was stealing their thunder and they resented it. Those who complained to me said that we, the administration, were putting rifles in the wrong hands, and because they wouldn't have the same training as a SWAT officer it could pose a danger to the public. And what if one of those cops ran into a building with an active shooter and got killed or seriously wounded and had his rifle, ammunition and radio taken away? Now the bad guy(s) not only had superior weaponry, they also could listen in on police communication.
Some valid points, no doubt, but nothing we had not considered prior to setting up the program. The reality was they were bitching because the glory was being taken away from SWAT and given to some mortal on patrol. I had to remind them that several SWAT officers were patrol officers, too, and that led to another policy change. SWAT officers up to that point had been forbidden to use their SWAT rifles for any incident other than a SWAT callout. That policy was changed. If a cop on patrol who happened to be a SWAT member responded to a shots fired call, he was allowed to utilize his rifle.
Law enforcement mindsets have changed a lot for the better in the last twenty-five years. I've heard that some departments have given up shotguns completely in favor of long rifles but I think that is a mistake. A .12 gauge shotgun with double ought buck is a devastatingly effective close quarters combat weapon, but even beyond that I see the need for breaching shotguns in case of incidents like Uvalde, where an active shooter is still killing and the cops have no way to get into the classroom. If you've not seen what a breaching round from a shotgun can do to a door, go online and look for videos. All SWAT teams have them and they are essential for patrol in today's environment of armed nut jobs seeking glory by murdering children. As Columbine showed us (and then Parkland and now Uvalde), waiting for SWAT costs lives.