War Gaming Columbine

Towards a Change in Doctrine

"It is not the critic who counts, nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena; whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strive valiantly; who err and come up short again and again; who know the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spend themselves in a worthy cause, who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who are at the worst, if failing, at least fail while daring greatly; so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

-Theodore Roosevelt

I am not, nor have I been, a soldier or police officer. I am merely a student of conflict, a critic, as TR would say. My web sites on Gettysburg, dogfighting, and the USS Massachusetts might reflect this interest in conflict and tactics. This section is written in response to Bradley's, Clinton's and others call for gun laws to prevent repeats of the Columbine tragedy. In the end, I'll get back to the merits of such laws. First, one has to look at Columbine as a purely tactical problem. Before that, a few notes on doctrine, and on war gaming.

There is a legend among my war gaming group. Once upon a time a bunch of amateurs did take on a bunch of professionals, at least in a using miniature figures, pencil, paper, and dice. A rival tactical gaming club defended a simulated European town using modern tanks and equipment. Knowing Soviet doctrine, they anticipated a rapid charge across the open ground to close the range as quickly as possible. Instead, members of my gaming group hulled down their tanks on a nearby ridge line. The American forces were picked off at a distance from behind cover.

The West Point cadets objected. "Not fair! You didn't follow Soviet doctrine!" The MIT Strategic Game Society just snickered. "You weren't fighting the Soviets."

There is a lesson to be learned. Sometimes, your own doctrine is based on an assumption that the other guys will follow their doctrine. If the opposition doesn't follow the script, one might be scrod. You can't ignore what the opposition is most likely to do, but you also can't disregard the worst he might do. One should occasionally examine one's own habits and assumptions.

The above is an example of war gaming. Both sides were given roughly equal forces, though not quite equal terrain. The MIT run Soviets were given slightly superior forces as they were going to be on the offensive. The cadets lost when they deployed in a way such that the MIT could remain defensive. The side that best used the resources and terrain won. This form of war game is an intellectual challenge, and a way of studying one particular historical environment.

Other play games for entirely different reasons. These might be called adventure gamers, or, more bluntly, ego-trippers. The player takes overwhelming force, sets up large numbers of targets that can be easily destroyed, and arranges for no serious threats. Doom and other 'first person shooter' video games reflect this ego-tripping style. The result is what I'll call an 'arcade environment,' target rich, threat poor. The player of such games gets to play at being a god.

The police at Columbine ought to have been war gaming. They should have been attempting to defend the students to the best of their resources. Their resources included vastly superior numbers, superior weapons, superior armor, and hopefully superior training. The shooters at Columbine wanted a 'first person shooter' arcade environment, target rich, threat poor.

How was it that the shooters were given their arcade environment? The shooters didn't follow the expected doctrine. The police are trained in tactics that have been found to work in many and varied styles of crime. This training, while appropriate under the vast majority of police encounters, was not appropriate for a mass murder suicide.

There is a football joke. One team, thinking the game over, left the field. Five plays later, the opposition scored and won the game. The Columbine shooters committed suicide. Three hours later, the police got medical attention to a wounded teacher who needed it much sooner. This is not a joke. How did it happen?

Like the West Point cadets assuming MIT would follow Soviet doctrine, the police followed a doctrine that assumed the shooters would behave like most criminals. These police tactics work well, most of the time. One cannot fault the officers at the scene for following their training. The police seldom arrive at the scenes of mass murder suicides while the mass murder is still in progress. Their training did not prepare them for it. I do not fault the police at Columbine. You can expect a commander to recognize that a doctrine is not working, but it is unreasonable to expect him to come up with a new doctrine on the fly. I would fault any force that does not learn from the mistakes made at Columbine.

Standard police doctrine emphasizes establishing a perimeter, preventing any chance of escape. The assumption is that if they can't escape, they will be punished. Any continued criminal acts increase the punishment. Thus, the logical rational behavior once perimeter is established is to stop committing crimes and surrender. This minimizes the inevitable punishment. Much of the time, the surrender isn't immediate. There is often a period of stalemate and negotiation. This is generally acceptable to the police. There is no need in such circumstances to act hastily, to settle the situation with violence. The blue suit force establishes the perimeter, opens negotiation, and calls for SWAT backup.

The perpetrator of a mass murder suicide does not fear punishment from a court. The intent is to suicide before getting caught. Thus, the perimeter is irrelevant. There will be no attempt to escape through the perimeter. The escape is through suicide. Threat of punishment if further crimes are committed is also absolutely irrelevant. The only cause for fear is that they will be caught alive, before they have a chance to suicide. Thus, patience on the perimeter, an excellent tactic in many circumstances, was precisely wrong at Columbine, and is apt to be precisely wrong in similar circumstances.

SWAT tactics are designed to break the stalemate. It is assumed the perimeter and negotiations will buy considerable time. If the negotiation does not achieve surrender, SWAT shock tactics end the stalemate quickly and forcefully. SWAT tactics often take advantage of the stalemate. The inactive time is used to gain precise knowledge of the ground and the perpetrators. Attack plans are worked out in considerable detail in advance. The SWAT team knows where each member is supposed to go, what is supposed to be done, and the responsibilities of each officer involved in the attack.

Going in blind with no scouting and no planning is considered a bad idea. Officers die. Hostages die. It is best to be patient and build a complete picture of the situation. At Columbine, while one student reports giving the police precise information on the shooters, every student coming out was giving another version of events. A precise plan would have had to wait for much better intelligence. Then too, early on, the shooters were moving. You can't put together a precise careful plan to hit a moving target. You might set an ambush, but ambush is not the situation SWAT normally trains for.

The usual SWAT tactic, patient gathering of information leading up to a precisely planned strike, is not optimal at a mass murder suicide. Conventional SWAT wisdom is that a premature unplanned strike puts hostages at risk. You don't move until the situation is known, and the odds are rigged for success. At mass murder suicides, the civilians aren't hostages; they are targets in a shooting gallery. While the intelligence is being gathered, people are dying.

The objective might not be to capture or kill the perpetrators. It is to present an immediate threat of being captured or killed. The objective might be to end the mass murder, and trigger the suicide. The tactics ought not to be police perimeter or SWAT tactics. They might be infantry tactics. If the opposition is hitting one's weaker forces, one can't hold one's potent forces on the defensive without sacrificing the weaker forces. You have to put pressure on the enemy, take him off the offensive, put him on the defensive. Just the threat of being wounded or captured could transform the entire situation. The perimeter should be closed in. As area is taken out of control, the targets should be moved out of the arcade. It is possible that a tighter perimeter might generate a conventional stalemate. Still, clearly one cannot keep a wide perimeter, no pressure, offering the opponents free reign in a target rich threat poor arcade environment.


(How the traditional tactics often play out.)

(CNN) A dramatic hostage escape from a home near Baltimore, Maryland late Tuesday gave police information they needed to storm the house and safely rescue a remaining hostage. The alleged hostage taker, Joseph Palczynski, was shot dead in the raid, police said.

The standoff had dragged on for four days, and it was the time factor that police credited with ending the siege.

"Patience," said Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence Sheridan. "It was waiting for the opportunity to save three lives" that led to the end of the standoff.

That opportunity came when hostage Lynn Whitehead escaped through a window in the home where she, her boyfriend Andrew McCord and his 12-year-old son Bradley had been held since Friday. McCord then followed Whitehead out the window and both ran to safety.

"We were having a briefing when we were informed she had come out of the window," Sheridan said. He said that Whitehead and McCord told police that Palczynski was sleeping on a living room couch and that the boy was asleep on the kitchen floor.

"At this point, SWAT team officers made what's known as a tactical entry," Baltimore County Police spokesman Bill Toohey said. "They broke through a window, encountered Mr. Palczynski in the family room and shot him. They then rescued the boy."

"Joseph Palczynski is dead," Toohey said. "He was shot by Baltimore County tactical officers shortly after 11 tonight and died at 11:05 on the scene." None of the police was wounded.

Police rescued the boy, who was found asleep on the kitchen floor. None of the hostages was hurt, Sheridan said.

Palczynski was accused by police of killing four people in the Baltimore area two weeks ago while he allegedly tried to kidnap his former girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, who later escaped.

Whitehead, who is the daughter of Lynn Whitehead, had broken up with Palczynski, recently, police said. The ex-girlfriend escaped from Palczynski at a motel, police said. Family members said she had been beaten with the butt of a rifle and sustained a broken nose, black eye and multiple bruises.

After the hostages were taken on Friday, the standoff had intensified Sunday and Monday, with the suspect shooting at police from windows inside the home. He negotiated off and on throughout the day Tuesday by phone and did not fire any shots at police, authorities said.

Police said Palczynski, an unemployed electrician, suffered from a mental disorder; he had been on the run since March 7, police said.


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