Lessons Learned

The active shooter phenomena shows no signs of stopping, and…

The active shooter phenomena shows no signs of stopping, and the latest incident on February 12, 2010 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is another example of an incident like the Fort Hood shooting, which does not fit the standard paradigm for an active shooter. While high school shootings of the Columbine variety seem to be on the decline due to target hardening, shootings in the workplace and college campuses continue on what seems to be an almost daily basis. So what makes the Huntsville shooting situation so different, and what can we learn from it?

Identity
First lesson — the shooter can be anyone. We say this a lot, but don’t actually take it to heart. We have grown accustomed since the 1990’s to the active shooter being a male of various age ranges from teen through adult (one was age 11). The female active shooter, like the female suicide bomber, is virtually unknown in this country. The alleged shooter in the University of Alabama case, soon to be former Professor Amy Bishop is only the second female active shooter on record. And, while this is the second college professor within a year to have gone on a shooting spree on campus, having someone with a PhD go on a rampage is rare — and shooting fellow faculty members, killing three, wounding three (as of this writing) is even rarer. Education or gender does not protect against evil or insanity. We as officers say we know that anyone can be a suspect, the Bishop case just reinforces that point.

Response

Second lesson — Campus Police Departments need to have the same capabilities of surrounding agencies. This includes SWAT or some sort of rapid, dynamic response team. The University of Alabama Police Department is a 65-man department that includes a K-9 unit, but no SWAT team. This is not the fault of the agency itself, but in all likelihood the college wouldn’t condone having its own SWAT team. I work for a college that fought against its campus police being armed for 20 years. It finally took the Virginia Tech Shooting and work by the Fraternal Order of Police to force the arming of our campus cops, who were patrolling a downtown campus without guns, but with issued soft body armor. Currently, our campus police department is only armed with Glock 17 pistols. It was too much to contemplate when approval was finally won to arm them to consider asking the administration for shotguns, or better yet AR15 rifles. And in the case of the University of Alabama, it was Huntsville PD, that made the final apprehension of Bishop, not the campus police.

Prevention
Third lesson — this could have been prevented. The single most bizarre thing about this shooting incident was that Bishop had killed her brother in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1986. According to news reports, she had fired at least three shots at her brother, striking a wall twice and hitting him once, killing him. The case was ruled an accident by former Braintree Police Chief John Polio, and Bishop was released to her mother. No charges were filed and the case never went to court. If Bishop had been charged, it’s not likely she would have been a faculty member on the campus, and she would never have been in a position to wreak so much havoc.

Beyond that, all the warning signs were there that Bishop was an unstable personality. She had been denied tenure. In most colleges that means, in Donald Trump’s words “you’re fired.” In fact, her victims were meeting on a tenure committee (not even discussing her) when she attacked. Anyone who is fired from anywhere these days needs to be placed on a localized watch list for that school, college, church, government agency or business. Other employees need to know about them, and alert authorities if they appear on property again once they are removed. The average college campus is wide open with many points of entrance onto the property itself and with many buildings ranging from dormitories to classrooms and administrative offices to enter, with no manned security screening checkpoints. The American college campus will continue to be a prime target of the evil and insane unless schools are willing to spend the money to set up each campus building like county courthouses or federal buildings, manned by campus police, not unarmed security with screening devices.

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