Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The rent-a-cops have got to go.

Yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech is almost too much to take in. The horror, the loss of life, the senselessness of it, the age of the victims -- it's unbearable.

We can't restore the dead to life. We can't say much to comfort grieving family and friends. We can't erase the memories of the survivors. But one thing we can do is provide at least a few answers.

Why did the shooter snap? Did anyone have any inkling that he might be planning a bloodbath? Where did he get the weapons? Was anyone else involved? Was the response of college authorities appropriate? What needs to be done to prevent incidents like this or provide better warnings to students if such massacres can't be stopped?

The survivors and loved ones of the victims deserve answers to these questions. And after watching the head of the campus police at a press conference last night, I couldn't believe that campus security was still in charge of this investigation.

I went to college and although my encounters with campus security were rare, these encounters were hardly confidence-inspiring. Twenty-year-olds whose voices were still cracking with youth, retired guys who could barely strap their walkie-talkies around their beer bellies, carrying a heavy resentment toward students along with their billy clubs. Maybe my view of campus police is skewed. But when we consider the enormity of this massacre, can we honestly say that campus police are the best people for the job?

There have already been serious questions raised about the university's response and the on-going investigation of the campus police. They still haven't said whether there were one or two gunmen (if there was one, say so to alleviate the fears of students; if there were two, why isn't there a massive manhunt underway?). They didn't identify the student to the public until sometime early this morning. They dismissed the first shooting as merely a "domestic"* and didn't implement wide-scale warnings to students until after most were on their way to morning classes.

Now is not the time for Cletus Farkel or Wendell Finchum or whoever the hell he is to play cops and robbers with a staff accustomed to dealing with drunk students and minor vandalism. Let's get the best law enforcement officers in the country on this case. Let's get some answers.

*And don't even get me started on what this may say about the campus police's attitude toward violence against women: "It was just his girlfriend - he's not gonna shoot anybody else"? "The bitch probably deserved it"?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful comments. Including the campus police attitude about violence against women.

Anonymous said...

Carol, I frequently find your posts insightful and thought provoking, but this one in particular resonated. It is a hard subject to post about. I have to process things like this for quite a while in order to make sense of the emotional mish-mash in my head.

Anonymous said...

Well said.
Barb B.

Carol said...

I'm waiting for the relative of a campus security officer to comment and tell me what a hater I am. ;)

Dodi Raz said...

Your post made me think about a weird similarity (maybe it is only in my foreign head) but it made me think of New Orleans and how the federal aid had to be requested by the state authorities or something like this, weird arrangements for me but I am an Israeli (living in Arizona 7 years) so what do I know!

Adrienne said...

Good questions, all, and I hope we get answers.

I have to say... I've seen a lot of media already blaming the school or law enforcement for not somehow knowing that the domestic shooting was going to turn into something bigger. I don't see how they could have know, and I hope people don't lose sight of the fact that responsiblity lies with the perpatrator, not one or more third parties.

Carol said...

I think that if you have a double homicide on a college campus at 7 in the morning, and you don't have the shooter in custody, you need to assume that (1) the guy is violent and (2) he could be anywhere on your campus and (3) he can use the gun again, either on himself on someone else. Knowing that, why wouldn't you take a more proactive role? I think these issues should be hashed out NOW so that if some other incident (God forbid) takes place, the response can be improved. There are plenty of scenarios where a better method of contacting students in an emergency should already be in place, whether another 9/11, an outbreak of a highly contagious disease, or an act of violence like this one. (God forbid x 3)

There is this theory that is often talked about in the context of plane crashes, that there is rarely 1 single thing which causes a large-scale disaster, but rather a handful of things that fall through the cracks: a failed inspection, a flawed part, an inexperienced pilot + bad weather, say. Any single one of these probably wouldn't cause the plane to crash, but the combination of all of them does. Same thing here. We need to find the weak spots and plug them up to reduce the chance of this happening again. One of those weak spots appears to be emergency contact with students.

Carol said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to say that if anyone uses the phrase "blame game" in these comments, they will be banned.

Anonymous said...

Solid post Carol, thanks for taking it up.

While I'm not a lawyer, this did get me thinking about Constitutional rights (see me opening the can of worms?). While we have the right to bear arms under the 2nd amendment, one needs to keep in mind the entire Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Do we consider this kid/killer, a member of the militia?

And living in VA, I think it's a bit *too* easy to obtain weapons here. I realize this may be an unpopular position-just my @0.02 worth.

Patricia said...

There is no school that I have attend that has a security force/office worth their weight in gold. Before this tragedy no-one thought about it. Everyone assumed that the students were safe, in a bubble of protection and innocence. That is gone now. Lots of things are gone in many facets of all of our lives. metal detectors in middleschool, rage, loss of job security, bad education, isolationism, is part of our daily lives. I don't have an answer, but this and other news just says to me, be careful, be kind, be selfs-supporting, know your neighbors as well as your family, and reach out. Also mental health maybe more of a priority than what we thought


Anonymous said...

A bigger manhunt would have been appropriate. It seems the assumption was that the shooter was just going to go quietly commit suicide. However, I'm not sure that there was a lack of a manhunt so much as a lack of publicity about one. Certainly city cops were involved almost from the beginning. I don't think they could have expected what he actually did, and I'm sure preventing panic was a large consideration. However, locking down the campus and keeping students in dorms would probably not have helped. He was a student and was *IN* a dorm. That would likely have only changed the name of the building and not the number who died.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but I don't think this bunch of campus cops has really deserved your reaction. There is a large amount of randomness here, and the human mind doesn't like randomness. (And no, I'm not related to any campus cops on any campus - or any cops at all for that matter.)

Sunflowerfairy said...

We live in a country that in our very constitution it states that we have the right to bear arms.

Yet we wonder why this keeps happening.

Everytime this happens (with the exception of the Amish shootings) the people surrounding the shooter(s) say that they were disturbed, sick, or "off".

Ugh. I don't know what the answer is.

Anonymous said...

I've had experiences with campus police that were similar to yours, but not at Virginia Tech. It's true my experience is 20 years old, but when I was there, the police were great. They were well-trained and personable. They were basically the police department for what amounted to a small city of 20,000. Maybe that's changed or maybe they just screwed up.

Anonymous said...

I just can't believe this guy:


Basically he's saying that allowing more guns in schools and universities will reduce the number of shootings. I can only imagine the result if someone had started a shoot-out yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Darn. "just screwed up" doesn't sound like what I meant.

I meant that the police are made up of just people and they made the best decisions they could given the information they had. Maybe their plan for the situation was inadequate. But could they have anticipated something like this.

And, would the university be willing to make the kinds of changes that would be necessary to prevent something like this from happening in the future. Guards in the hallways?

amy! said...

I don't want to play the "blame game", but I do want to caution about jumping to conclusions. ;)

I wanted to echo what Flaring said above. It's true that some campuses have sub-standard police forces (usually on a par with what they offer in terms of health care as well). But larger schools have bigger and better forces. I work for MIT. They have a real police force, with guns and training the rivals the Cambridge city force. It sounds like VA Tech had something similar.

As for the notion of lockdown or campus notification, I don't think there was any reason to believe the shooter in the 7am incident was still around. I can't speak to what type of manhunt they had going on. But I try to imagine the same thing taking place in a residential neighborhood. Without knowing exactly where the shooter is, there's no reason to shut down multiple neighborhoods. And the mall on the corner certainly shouldn't close all the stores and send people home because of a home invasion robbery.

amy! said...

...training _that_ rivals the Cambridge city force...

Anonymous said...

Judging from the number of complaints I'm seeing in local press and in the blogosphere about asian looking boys having been taken in for questioning - I'd say there *was* a manhunt. Even if I were qualified to judge how well it was conducted, and I'm not, there is not sufficient information in the public sphere to make that judgement.

Margaret said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret said...

I would like to chime in with Flaring and Amy. I'm a long-time resident of Charlottesville, VA home to UVa. I've been to Va Tech a number of times on business. I worked in Facilities Mgt at Clemson for four years which is a very comparable university to VPI in many ways, including its fairly remote rural location. It is easy to start pointing fingers, but hard to accept that errors can be made with the best intentions and the best practices in place.

There has been significant involvement from early on by law enforcement at state and federal levels, not just "rent-a-cops". We started hearing about this as local news even as it was unfolding and that much was clear. Yet, not everything about an ongoing investigation is made public, and that is as it should be.

Echoing previous statements, large state universities in remote locations often have quite sophisticated emergency services including police and fire departments because there are no other emergency services nearby. My experiences with campus police in the 1970’s are not relevant here, as much has changed, particularly with the increased focus on disaster preparedness of the past few years.

While I share your concern in the larger sense, the victims of the first incident were both male and female, so I’m not sure how much can be extrapolated from this crime to the general attitude of the university police on violence against women. And there are many “domestic” crimes that do not turn into mass killings.

Lastly, I must take exception re the police chief being the voice of the law enforcement effort. Just because someone lives in the South and may have what sounds to you like a funny name please don’t assume he is necessarily an ignorant hick on a power trip. I found more than my share of backwards, racist, and ill-informed individuals when I lived in Pennsylvania, Detroit, and Boston.

My thoughts are with the entire Virginia Tech community.

Carol said...

I stand by my opinion. I do not think a campus security arm should be spearheading the operation of the largest mass shooting on US soil. I think there are other law enforcement agencies better experienced and equipped -- the Virginia Bureau of Investigations or the FBI, for example, I do not think that it is acceptable to discover 2 college students shot in a dorm, with no shooter in custody, and to assume there is no more danger. I do not think it's acceptable to have a double murder on campus and refrain from informing the community until 2 hrs later -- and then call it a "shooting incident" while you still don't have the shooter in custody. I do not think it's out of line to ask hard questions about how this was handled in order to better prepare for disasters or other future incidents.

Nita Van Zandt said...

Worse that letting the first shooting go as merely domestic, the killer had written such twisted and violent plays in English class, his fellow classmates were seriously worried he could be a school shooter. His plays were sent to the Dept. head and admin, but no action had yet been taken (check out CNN.com and a link to the actual writings).

So he was sending out signals long before the dorm shooting. And he bought the guns 36 days ago.

Margaret said...

I respect your opinion, but disagree. The Virginia State Police and FBI are involved. A friend of mine heard about the first shooting on the news at 7:30am, so it's not like it was being kept a secret. I'm not sure how the University WOULD reliably notify 25,000 students, most of whom live off-campus. I have two step-daughters in college and grad school, and I know how much trouble I have reaching them by any means.

The more relevant questions for me concern how warning signs about someone that disturbed weren't taken more seriously or dealt with.

Anyway, it's your blog, and I don't usually argue in comments, so my apologies. Your post troubled me, but again, I respect your position, and I'm done.

Carol said...

I am not sure that we disagree much. I think it is important to ask these questions, even if they are unpleasant. Including your question, Margaret, of how someone this troubled slips under the radar -- but also whether the university's response in a disaster was adequate in this case or would be in the future. Some universities have text message systems where they send IMs to cell phones. The school district my kids are in uses a special phone notification system where a message is recorded and phoned to every home address in case of a problemor cancellation. (In fact, someone in a house about 5 blocks away had an intruder in their yard who fired shots. We got a call since they postponed the start of school pending the manhunt. And the university which borders the neighborhood also took steps to tell the students and cancel or postpone classes.) The attitude seems to be "well, there are so many kids we didn't know what to do." Doesn't it bother you at all that they didn't even try? I suspect that if enough students knew what was going on, they would have told people they saw and contacted their friends, thus passing word along to stay inside.

I think it's great that law enforcement with more extensive experience in murder cases are involved in the investigation. I believe they should be running it. I saw a lot of the coverage yesterday and I was not at all impressed with the university's responses or spokespeople.

I also recall feeling similarly about Chief Moose---don't remember the rest of the name --who was in one of the jurisdictions where the Beltway Snipers struck. I'm a lawyer but I sure as hell wouldn't handle an immigration case because I don't know jack about immigration law. You have to know when to let the experts step in.

I guess I just don't have patience with this "we shouldn't second guess them" mentality. There are over 30 bodies lying in the morgue tonight. When would be a better time to do some hard analysis and, yes, second guessing?