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'Turn in your badge': Child demands Chief Arredondo be fired
01:12 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

After the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, a state commission investigating the attack in Colorado offered a recommendation that would go on to be widely adopted by police agencies across the United States:

“Law enforcement policy and training should emphasize that the highest priority of law enforcement officers, after arriving at the scene of a crisis, is to stop any ongoing assault.”

Twenty-three years and hundreds of active shooter incidents later, society and policing leaders have set expectations that police end shooting attacks quickly and decisively – by killing or arresting the gunman – and prioritize the lives of victims over those of responding officers.

That did not happen three months ago when a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers and left 17 other people injured. After law enforcement approached the classrooms where the shooter had holed up with wounded students, the gunman fired at police, who retreated, then waited more than 70 minutes to confront and kill him.

The attack on Robb Elementary, the tactical failures of the police response, the inaccurate framing later by police of their own efforts as heroic and the subsequent refusal over months by government officials to answer key questions that could clarify the public’s understanding of that day, together, will have ramifications for years to come, even if only as a reminder of how not to respond to an active shooter and how not to communicate with the public afterward.

Beyond the immediate and deep devastation of dead students and educators, the deficiencies already have begun to undermine the credibility of law enforcement in Texas, testing residents’ faith in their own police and raising questions about the officers’ ability to confront future crimes. The mistrust has rippled, too: A sheriff in Illinois soon after the attack declared publicly that his deputies never would respond to a similar assault as police did in Uvalde, and school officials in Atlanta just this week briefed parents also concerned over the Uvalde police response about their own safety plans.

“This is very, very early in a long-, long-term affair,” said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association. “We’re in the first minute of an overtime game. There will be a lot of unintended, unforeseen, unanticipated consequences. That’s a shame.”

During the police response to the Columbine attack – a shocking siege that felt like a first-of-its kind event and marked a seminal moment in American policing – officers surrounded the school, trained to expect a SWAT team with specialized weapons and tactics to enter and resolve the situation. Professional practice in law enforcement back then also held that time itself benefited police responders.

But Columbine upended that widely held belief, with the state commission finding the trained response was “demonstrably inadequate for incidents like that at Columbine High School.” “Time is not on the side of police if one or more active perpetrators are in control of a large public building where there are many potential victims,” its report reads.

Twelve students and one teacher died at Columbine at the hands of two students who killed themselves at the school before officers found them. The police response was hampered not just by the ill-suited tactics but also by problems with communication among responding police agencies. Though an officer traded gunfire with one of the shooters a few minutes into the attack outside the school, the first law enforcement entry into the school came about 50 minutes after the shooting began, the report states.

Columbine High School students run from the campus under police cover on April 20, 1999.

Amid debate after Columbine over whether police waiting for backup was the right approach, there was broad agreement the surround-and-negotiate approach taken during that massacre wasn’t appropriate to the type of violent school attack that’s only become more common over the past two decades, recalled Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which aims to improve professionalism in policing.

“Back then, there was still some (debate as to) whether a single officer should go in or wait for additional officers. There was variation in policies … I think that’s the case even at Parkland,” he said, referring to the 2018 school shooting in Florida. “But Uvalde was a line in the sand in the sense that … lessons will be felt for decades to come. It’s not a debate anymore.”

The Columbine c