Amid the criticism leveled at the Virginia Tech Police Department by the review panel's report for prematurely deciding the double murder of students of Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher was isolated and domestic in nature, it should not be lost how well-prepared the university's police were to respond to the incident and how heroic they were in their response to the rampage at Norris Hall, where 30 people were murdered.
When I began investigating how a university and their police force should prepare themselves to handle a mass casualty shooting on campus, I learned that two concepts were highlighted by professionals as paramount: mutual-aid agreements and active shooter response training.
The VTPD had both in effect.
A mutual-aid agreement is an understanding between two entities—in this case, law enforcement agencies—to help each other in times of crisis; it outlines each agency's role and responsibility during a response. Mutual-aid agreements should also span the hierarchy of law enforcement, from the university level up to the regional FBI office. Ideally, these law enforcement agencies will train together to better familize themselves with each other before a crisis does occur.
According to the report:
The campus police could not handle a major event by themselves... and so they entered into a mutual aid agreement with the Blacksburg Police Department.... The VT campus police also have excellent working relationships with the regional offices of the state police, FBI, and ATF.
Surprisingly, not only did the VTPD have mutual-aid agreements, but they had trained in active-shooter response. Active-shooter response is a strategy developed after the Columbine High School massacre. It arose from the lesson that police officers, who were first on the scene, had to respond to gunfire and engage a gunman before he executed more victims. They could not await the SWAT team, because a second's delay could mean lives.
As the report notes, VTPD's foresight to establish a mutual-aid agreement with the Blacksburg Police Department and train with them in active-shooter response was "critical."
When police were notified of the shootings at Norris Hall, two officers arrived within three minutes. Seconds later, three more police officers arrived as more officers responsed throughout the incident. Within minutes a team of five officers—one from VTPD and four from BPD—entered Norris Hall after shooting the door lock of the fourth entrance tried. (Killer Seung Hui Cho had chained the three previous doors shut.) Seconds later a second team of seven police officers entered Norris Hall.
Here is how the report assesses the police response to the mass murder at Norris Hall. It is glowing and deserves to be quoted at length.
Overall, the police from Virginia Tech and Blacksburg did an outstanding job in responding quickly and using appropriate activeshooter procedures to advance to the shooter’s location and to clear Norris Hall.
The close relationship of the Virginia Tech Police Department and Blacksburg Police Department and their frequent joint training saved critical minutes. They had trained together for an active shooter incident in university buildings. There is little question their actions saved lives. Other campus police and security departments should make sure they have a mutual aid arrangement as good as that of the Virginia Tech Police Department.
Police cannot wait for SWAT teams to arrive and assemble, but must attack an active shooter at once using the first officers arriving on the scene, which was done. The officers entering the building proceeded to the second floor just as the shooting stopped. The sound of the shotgun blast and their arrival on the second floor probably caused Cho to realize that attack by the police was imminent and to take his own life.
Naturally, it will be the mistake made by the initial police investigation into the double homicide at Ambler Johnson Hall that will be highlighted in mainstream media, rather than the police foresight, preparedness, and execution of their training and duties that minimized the carnage Cho sought to reap.
That's unfair. It's reasonable to note the problems, but they should be kept in perspective, especially given that the report states "there does not seem to be a plausible scenario of university response to the double homicide that could have prevented a tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16."
As many experts I spoke with noted, Cho was tantamount to a suicide bomber determined to wreak bloody havoc at the price of his own life. There's only so much law enforcement can do in those cases. If it weren't for the professionalism and heroism of the VTPD and the BPD, it would have been much much worse.