Va. Tech police ineffective

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April 25, 2007

1:59 AM

__In time of tragedy, law enforcement’s handling of shooting must be questioned__

p. I have to extend the greatest condolences and support from myself and the entire College to the students, faculty and staff at Virginia Tech and their families. What occurred is a great tragedy; I pray that all the injured recover quickly and that the fallen are remembered and loved as they find their way through whatever awaits them.

p. However, in this time of great tragedy, I must question law enforcement’s ineffective, botched response to the initial situation. A brief timeline of events outlines the problem.

p. At 7:15 a.m., a 911 call was placed. Immediately responding to the call, SWAT teams, campus police and local law enforcement swarmed the campus, all reporting to West Ambler Johnston Hall. At approximately 9:15 a.m., a shooting occurred at Norris Hall, where there were 31 killed, including the shooter, and numerous injured. At 9:26 a.m., the administration’s first e-mail was delivered to students, reporting the first shooting at the dormitory.

p. The authorities, upon finding two deceased and multiple injured at the dorm, incorrectly followed first-responder crime scene protocol. The Department of Justice Crime Scene Investigation handbook states that the priority of the first-responder is “the safety and physical well-being of officers and other individuals, in and around the crime scene.” First-responders are to “assume the crime is ongoing until determined to be otherwise.” The first-responders to West Ambler Johnston Hall found two dead, multiple injured and no weapon in the nearby area; they assumed it was a “domestic dispute” and the “gunman had fled campus.”

p. Excuse me?

p. Even if it were assumed to be a domestic dispute, the proper response would be to assume that the crime was still ongoing. Additionally, the number injured (in addition to the number deceased) was a preponderance of evidence that this was not merely a domestic dispute. Contrary to Virginia Tech President Charles Steger’s opinion that “we can only make decisions based on the information [we] had at the time,” law enforcement and university administration could have responded much more effectively to the initial situation.

p. The first-responder analysis should have boiled down to this: you have two murders, multiple injuries, no weapon and no killer. The inner boundary of the crime scene should have been established around the dorm building and the outer boundary should have included the entire campus. Officers responding to the dormitory should have begun their search for possible shooters immediately, while a single team began their investigation.

p. Arriving law enforcement should have been stationed across campus to ensure order and safety (as well as been posted at each campus entrance to monitor arriving vehicles). This would have presented a defensive front to any potential threats, and officers would have been in a position to close campus entrances. Finally, SWAT teams should have systematically swept the areas immediately surrounding the dormitory. Would following proper protocol by police and the administration have definitively saved lives? No one can say for certain — but I suppose now, we’ll never know.

p. Would this have caused mass disruption and chaos by assuming such a defensive stance on a college campus in a time of crisis? No — disruption of classes should be the last worry in such a crisis and chaos need not be the result. Last August, on the first day of classes, Tech closed its main entrances when a convict killed a hospital guard, escaped and killed a deputy on a trail just off campus. The campus did not go into a mass frenzy and remained relatively well-ordered, while the university’s safety was ensured through an effective, increased police presence.

p. Although I applaud university administration and law enforcement for their handling of the tragedy post-occurrence, I disagree with Steger’s statement that there was “no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur.” I’m not going to stand up and say that the entire tragedy was preventable. But when you have two murders, multiple casualties, no definite killer and no sign of a weapon, you could have an armed and dangerous suspect on the loose. You should not only consider that another incident can occur, but should assume that it is going to. For everyone’s sake.

p. __Devin DeBacker is a junior at the College.__

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