How Columbine Shaped Police Response To Shootings

For many, the shootings in Colorado Friday seem like an echo of the tragic shootings at Columbine High School 13 years ago. James Johnson is the chief of Police for Baltimore County and a 34-year veteran of the force. Host Scott Simon speaks with Johnson about changes in police tactics since Columbine.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And for many, the shootings in Aurora seem like an echo of another tragedy just 15 miles and 13 years away - the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In a moment, we'll hear from someone who helped students and faculty cope with the psychological trauma, in the aftermath of Columbine. That tragedy also changed the way police respond to such incidents. We spoke with Baltimore County Chief of Police James Johnson. He is a 34-year veteran of the force. He's also the incoming chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.

JAMES JOHNSON: In the past, the strategy was to respond - initial patrol units respond, and secure both inner and outer perimeters; and wait - sometimes a lengthy wait; for more equipped, response-type units from tactical, for example. Today, all across America, the practice is, police officers who are patrolmen, who initially receive the call, respond at the scene. Once they make an assessment, they cause an immediate intervention to freeze; stabilize; and keep the incident from moving throughout a larger structure, such as a mall or a school. In addition, there's been significant enhancements in officer armament, weapon upgrades and other technologies - from communication to other wireless improvements - to help us deal with active-shooter confrontations.

SIMON: And chief, are you in a position to say - do most departments train for the possibility, at least, of this kind of incident?

JOHNSON: I think it's a very accurate assessment. All across the United States, jurisdictional training takes place. I can tell you - my jurisdiction, we are constantly involved in active-shooter training. And a lot of work goes into preventive-type training, where we begin to understand the layout of a mall or a school building. We design plans in the event there should be an attack at a specific school or structure. But I have to tell you, Scott, no matter - you know - what types of technology or tools that are put in place, in the end it is the bravery of responding law-enforcement and citizens; that take action to help the wounded, and intervene in saving lives and reducing injury.

SIMON: We're speaking at a time where there are a lot of uncertainties about the case. But when something like this happens, do you feel there's something more to be done legislatively?

JOHNSON: Well, like most Americans, I'm waiting for, you know, preliminary information; reports to come in. These incidents are difficult to understand and terribly tragic. I think in the days and the weeks ahead, we will learn more about how the weapons, and the equipment, that this individual had were acquired. We'll also begin - again - to look at state law and policy, to ensure those unfit to buy and possess firearms don't obtain them or retain them. And Scott, I have to tell you, in some cases - tragically, in some cases - even with the best law, procedure, diligence and intervention, these tragic incidents will occur.

SIMON: James Johnson, the Baltimore County chief of police, and the incoming chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence; speaking with us from Baltimore County. Chief Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Scott.

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