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First SWAT officer in Columbine shares lessons learned on how to handle active shooters

Texas School-Shooting
Posted at 6:40 PM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 21:18:37-04

DENVER — There is a cycle that comes with tragedies like the school shooting in Uvalde — first shock, then disbelief, grief, anger and questions.

There are questions about how such a horrific tragedy could occur and why. Some of the questions will be answered in the days and weeks ahead, as the investigation into the tragedy concludes. Other questions might never be answered, like why this happened.

After the questions come lessons so that schools and law enforcement can be better prepared the next time there is an active shooter.

Grant Whitus has dedicated his life to teaching others those lessons.

Whitus is a former SWAT team leader for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. He was the first law enforcement officer in the door of Columbine High School, the one who found the shooters dead in the library after they took their own lives.

“I'll never forget the feeling of going through that window,” Whitus said.

Officers waited 47 minutes before entering the high school. In that time, 12 students and a teacher were killed, and another 23 people were injured.

“Columbine obviously set the precedence of that 23 years ago,” Whitus said. “If we go back to Columbine, the response was wait for SWAT, SWAT goes in and takes care of it.”

The biggest lesson Whitus and many others learned from the Columbine tragedy is that every second matters in an active shooter situation. Once shooting starts, he says an average of one person is killed every 15 seconds until the gunman is stopped.

Protocols have changed significantly in the 23 years since that shooting. The Immediate Action Rapid Deployment policy was developed to train law enforcement to immediately enter the building in the event of an active shooter. The goal is to immediately engage with the shooter and stop them.

“The lessons learned there is why we've taught for 23 years. Don't make the same mistake we made,” Whitus said.

There has been success to the strategy. Whitus points to the Stem Highlands Ranch school shooting that took the life of Kendrick Castillo as an example.

Officers that first arrived on the scene immediately entered the building and were able to detain the shooters, with the help of students who rushed the gunman.

In the two decades since the Columbine tragedy, Whitus has trained thousands of police officers in big and small departments. He says agencies in big cities and small towns all now have active shooter protocols, and he has taught many how to enter a building quickly with only one or two officers and immediately begin engaging the shooter while backup arrives.

That is not what happened in the case of the Uvalde school tragedy. The shooter in that case spent more than 90 minutes in the school before law enforcement confronted him and eventually killed him.

On Friday, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, laid out a timeline of events, saying the shooter entered the school at 11:33 a.m. through a back door that was left propped open by a teacher.

Two minutes later, three officers entered the school, followed by four more. They engaged the shooter, and two of them were injured. The 18-year-old gunman then went into two adjoining classrooms, locked the door from the inside and started shooting students.

The officers waited in the hallway until backup arrived.

“An on-scene commander at the time believed that it had transitioned from an active shooter to a barricaded subject,” McCraw told reporters Friday. “The incident commander inside believed they needed more equipment and more officers to do a tactical breach at that point.”

By 12:03 p.m. there were 19 police officers in the hallway. At 12:15 p.m., members of a tactical team arrived and started moving down the hallway six minutes later. At 12:50 p.m., they used a key to unlock the door, exchanged fire with the gunman and killed him.

McCraw told reporters the on-scene commander believed it was a barricaded subject and that there were no more children at risk, which is why they didn’t enter the room right away. However, McCraw also told reporters that students in the two classrooms called 911 multiple times, saying they were in the classrooms and that there were kids who were still alive.

One girl called 911 and begged for the police to come help, saying she could hear them on the other side of the wall.

“With hindsight, from where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision, period. There is no excuse for that,” McCraw said.

McCraw went on to tell reporters that Texas embraces the active shooter doctrine and that they have been trained to immediately engage with suspects, but that the belief at the time was that no one was alive in the classrooms.

Whitus is waiting for the full investigation to be completed before making any definitive judgements on whether something should have been done differently, but he also has a lot of questions.

“Let me preface that by saying often these officers get there, want to go in and are told by administrators to wait. So we can't always blame this on the officers,” he said.

However, seeing and hearing the initial response and the information coming out about the tragedy, Whitus says the delay is disheartening.

He also wanted to make clear that the protocols for an active shooter are different from a hostage situation, and those are different from a barricaded subject. For barricaded subjects, the assumption is that the person is in a room with no one to harm, aiming or shooting outward or only threatening themselves.

“It allows law enforcement all the time in the world right there. We're only dealing with one guy inside there,” Whitus said.

Because there were still children alive in the classroom, the Uvalde shooting was not a barricaded subject.

“The more I watch this, the harder it gets. And I feel so bad for those parents that are pleading with these law enforcement officers to get in there and stop it,” Whitus said.

There are so many questions after a tragedy like Uvalde, and so many lessons each time there is an active shooter. For Whitus, the lesson is that there’s always a need for more training.