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Federal and Colorado officials are seeking to transform the April 20
disaster at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., into a law
enforcement triumph. Attorney General Janet Reno praised the local
police response as “extraordinary” — “a textbook” example of “how to do
it the right way.” President Clinton declared last Saturday that “we
look with admiration at the … the police officers who rushed to the
scene to save lives.”

However, the excruciatingly slow response by SWAT teams and other
lawmen to the killings in progress turned a multiple homicide into a
historic massacre. The pathetic excuses being offered vivify how law
enforcement has no legal liability to people they fail to protect. The
Colorado killings offer stark evidence why citizens cannot rely on
government for their personal safety.

“Close enough for government work” is the motto for the defenders of
the law enforcement response. Jefferson County deputy Neil Gardner, the
first policeman to shoot and miss at the killers, said on NBC’s
Dateline, “I think with exchanging fire, it did allow some — some
people that are — that were fleeing the scene to get out of the
building. I always will have to live with the fact that, maybe if I
could have dropped him, maybe it would have saved one or two more
lives.” However, at the time of this gunfire exchange, the teens had
apparently only killed two people. If Gardner had hit one of the teens,
it might have unnerved his co-killer and led to a surrender — or an
earlier suicide — and thus saved as many as 11 lives. Two other
policemen arrived on the scene, fired at one of the killers — and
missed.

Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone later explained, “We had initial
people there right away, but we couldn’t get in. We were way outgunned.”
This wasn’t Beider-Meinhoff; this wasn’t Abu
Nidal’s terrorist cliché; this was two relatively inexperienced teens
with a few cheap firearms. If policemen on the scene actually felt
outgunned, they could have quickly retrieved automatic weapons or other
heavy-duty firearms from patrol cars. Many local SWAT teams descended
on the high school parking lot and vicinity after the shooting started.
But none of the SWAT teams
confronted the killers. Police spokesmen said the SWATs were not sent in
“for fear that they might set off a new gunfight,” as the New York Times
reported. At least there was no danger of a
“gunfight” when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were executing unarmed
students.

Sheriff Stone justified the non-response: “We didn’t want to have one
SWAT team shooting another SWAT team.” It seemingly never occurred to
police not to send in all the SWAT teams. Apparently, the more police
who respond to a crisis, the more incapable any policeman becomes of
doing anything to stop the killings. The police response also seemed
paralyzed by concerns for
“officer safety.” Steve Davis, spokesman for the Jefferson County
Sheriff’s Department, said, “We had no idea who was a victim and who was
a suspect. And a dead police officer would not be able to help anyone.”
But the “suspects” were brazenly walking around with sawed off shotguns
and firing at will and were identified in the first few minutes as
wearing trench coats.

Donn Kraemer of the Lakewood SWAT team explained: “If we went in and
tried to take them and got shot, we would be part of the problem. We’re
supposed to bring order to chaos, not add to the chaos.” Some police
seem to see their role as historians — entering the building after the
crime spree is over and carefully noting where each dead body lay. Is it
necessary to have SWAT teams with the most advanced equipment and
machine guns in order to distribute body bags after the carnage is over?

Law enforcement spokesmen are now bragging that they successfully
contained the two teens in the school after the killing rampage started.
Sheriff Stone proclaimed last Saturday that “early intervention” by the
cops who shot at the killers and missed “saved one heck of a lot of
kids’ lives, by pinning these guys down (Harris and Klebold spent most
of their time in the library, where they killed 10 people), by putting
them on the defensive, instead of the offensive (except for the 13
murder victims), and subsequently probably led to their suicide.” Yet,
one of the youths left a suicide note before the carnage began. SWAT
teams may have become an impediment to public safety.

There were probably plenty of individual policemen with the courage
to enter the building and go after the shooters while the killings
continued. But the militarization of law enforcement seems to have also
resulted in police becoming bureaucratized — if not Dilbertized.

President Clinton, Attorney General Reno, and others are claiming
that the Colorado tragedy proves the need for stricter gun control. The
Washington Post used the tragedy to call for the
confiscation of all handguns. But the more successful gun control is in
disarming citizens, the more dependent people become on government
officials for protection — protection that is often
slow and unreliable.

When government ineptitude results in unnecessary killings — well,
the survivors can write a letter to their congressman or state
legislator. A federal appeals court declared in 1982, “There
is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being
murdered by criminals or madmen.” Citizens have no effective,
enforceable right to police protection — and both police
and criminals know this.

Is there anyone who has closely followed this tragedy who would trust
the lives of their children to the Colorado SWAT teams? The police can
be trusted to protect themselves. But what about the rest of us?


James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the
State & the Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). To see
first chapter of Freedom in Chains and get further information on his
books, point your browser here.

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