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Militarized Law Enforcement Isn’t Protecting Us From Mass Shooters

Above photo: Logan Weaver via Unsplash.

As mass shootings remain a deadly reality of our daily lives, the police continue to point to them as a need for militarizing themselves and society at large.

Yet militarized police often fail to stop mass shootings from happening when they do respond.

On March 24, 2021, a man shot up a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, killing nine workers and shoppers and one police officer. I live nearby and heard about the shooting when a comrade sent me a local Libertarian’s livestream of the tragedy as it was happening. About five minutes into the livestream and roughly six minutes since the first shots were fired, four Boulder Police officers rushed into the store. They were met with what sounded like gunshots, then two of the officers ran out of the King Scopers entrance. This is likely the moment Officer Eric Talley was killed.

For the next 45 minutes, SWAT from neighboring municipalities rallied outside of the King Soopers, but despite their advanced body armor, firearms, and training, they did not go inside. As gunshots continued to ring out from inside the store, militarized police waited outside of the grocery store. There were around 100 police officers, decked out from head to toe in protective gear, holding AR-15s, huddled around the corner of an active shooting scene for fear of being ambushed, as employees and shoppers hid in back rooms and under trash cans, fearing for their lives. Boulder Police Department claims that no one was killed after those four officers first entered the building, but the slow response of SWAT to stop the shooter prolonged the danger and trauma of the innocent people still trapped inside, and delayed emergency medical responses for the victims. Predictably, SWAT eventually entered the store and apprehended the white-passing shooter alive after he surrendered.

Community members who watched the livestream were outraged by the painstakingly long response by SWAT to stop the shooting.

While victim’s families were still trying to find out the status of their loved ones, the community was subjected to a press conference in which Boulder Police Department Commander Yamaguchi eulogized Officer Talley, emphasized his status as a police officer, and made specific requests to respect his family. The nine other victims were simply mentioned as a “loss of life.” Commander Yamaguchi then praised the 45-minute response time to the shooting as “quick” and congratulated his department and the others that responded.

That night, the Boulder Police Department held a memorial caravan for officer Talley the night of the shooting which greatly disrupted traffic. Authorities had not yet released the identities of the victims, nor announced the death toll. Police from around the state held another memorial caravan on Wednesday for officer Talley, and no one else.

Decades Of Failure

Standing around outside mass shootings in military gear is unfortunately how many of these horrific attacks are handled by law enforcement.

The police who responded to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School were widely criticized for their slow delay in entering the school and their failure to stop the shooters.

The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida occurred as an off-duty cop hired as security abandoned his post. Police responded to the shooting by arresting injured victims instead of apprehending the shooter.

A Florida State Commission report on the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida echoes what we witnessed on Monday in Boulder, stating that, “None of these BSO deputies immediately responded to the gun shots by entering the campus and seeking out the shooter.” Further delays to stopping the Parkland shooter were attributed to police running back to their cars to retrieve body armor:

Deputy sheriffs who took the time to retrieve vests from containers in their cruisers, removed certain equipment they were wearing so that they could put on their vests, and then replaced the equipment they had removed all while shots were being fired, or had been recently fired, is unacceptable and contrary to accepted protocol.

In 2019, when two shooters attacked the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, it was not the police who stopped the shooters, but students and a private security guard (who accidentally shot two other students with a gun he was not supposed to have). Despite the lack of police involvement in stopping the shooting, then President Donald Trump thanked “first responders” for “bravely intervening” in the shooting.

In 2015 when white supremacist Dylan Roof attacked the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, police arrested him the next day, well after he had completed his attack and attempted suicide.

While there isn’t enough information yet to determine what the Atlanta Spa shooter’s plan, it is likely the shooter was apprehended after he completed his attacks and was fleeing to Florida.

In 2013, when Sandy Hook Elementary School was attacked, police parked a quarter mile away from the school, walking along the tree line to get to the school, and were ultimately unsuccessful at stopping the shooting. However, immediate organization from teachers and faculty to barricade and hide children from the shooter did save lives.

This same mutual aid was likely crucial at preventing further loss of life during this week’s shooting as armored police sat and waited outside.

They Don’t Care About Us

There has been decades of police reform and militarization to respond faster and more effectively to mass shootings since Columbine, and yet we frequently see police put their own safety above that of the people they are supposed to protect. The military equipment purchases justified by tragedies like Columbine are much more frequently and effectively used against struggles for liberation than mass shooters.

In Boulder, only 5% of the police department live in the city. They are not part of the community. They drive in from out of town to harass homeless people and their allies, maintain Boulder’s white super-majority, and ensure that business runs smoothly. As many already know, the police have no legal imperative to protect us. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the US Supreme Court ruled that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect someone.

The police do not care about us and will almost always favor their own survival than the people they are “supposed” to protect. “Protect and Serve” is a highly effective PR campaign to trick people into thinking the police deserve the power they have and the violence they perpetuate is just the price we pay to be saved when there is a mass shooter or some other acute violence.

Defund, Disarm, Dismantle

Boulder’s Chief of Police is expected to request additional funding for policing on April 27th as her department is losing officers left and right, which is in part due to local anti-police organizing. It wasn’t a lack of equipment, personnel, or training that prevented SWAT from stopping the Boulder shooter, it was a lack of will to “protect and serve” the community members who were being murdered.

The Boulder Police Department and their allies in city government have already begun the PR spin that the police response was swift, fearless, and effective, as police departments do after every crisis. It is imperative that community members see through the seizing of crisis to build power by police departments, particularly when they consistently fail to protect our communities from immediate harm.

The rote back-patting of law enforcement for their supposed bravery at the end of every tragedy is a form of myth-making that serves to make people feel indebted to the police, and as a result, more compliant to their orders and the white supremacist hegemony they enforce. Every dollar given to the Boulder Police Department in the false hope that it will stop another mass shooting will be used to maintain the force’s disproportionate stop and arrest rate of Black people and their scorched earth policy on people experiencing homelessness.

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