Wyatt Earp, Where Are You Now That We Need You?

By | March 1, 2018 | 2 Comments

Frontier marshal

What if Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday had been present in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, as they were at the OK Corral on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona? And what if they heard gunshots from Douglas High School, and saw frightened students running out the doors? I have little doubt what they would have done.

They would not have taken cover behind the building, as did the armed deputy assigned to the school. They would not have taken cover behind their vehicles, as three arriving deputies reportedly did. They would not have waited for the city police to reinforce them before acting. They would not have hesitated until 17 students and teachers were dead and 14 injured. They would have rushed into the school and run toward the sound of the gunshots.

Nor is this hesitation a new phenomenon. A similar fiasco occurred at the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999. Students were calling out the windows for help, yelling that their teacher was bleeding to death. But the police waited for the SWAT team to arrive. The two homicidal students managed to kill 13 and injure 21 before they were confronted by police and shot themselves.

This tragedy was described by Dave Kopel in an article titled, “The Police Stood Idle.” As a result, police departments across the country revised their ideas regarding active-shooter events. At least, we thought they did. But in the 19 years since Columbine, what has changed? Or as a lawyer would ask, what if anything has changed?

The answer is, not nearly as much as we had hoped.

Here is an excerpt from a column by “Jack Dunphy,” the pen name of a man who served 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and now serves with another law-enforcement agency:

As things stood when I last went through this training, the policy was for officers not to enter a building alone, but to assemble and engage a shooter in groups of four or five. This based on the assumption that a lone officer would merely become another casualty among those already wounded. This policy was adopted by police departments all over the country, perhaps even by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

I have no police experience. My only relevant experience is having worked in a county hospital emergency department. When you see a man shot in the head, a man shot in the back at close range with a shotgun, a man with his throat cut ear-to-ear, and a man sliced from front to back, your view of human nature changes negatively, and your view of the police changes positively. You can no longer live in a liberal bubble, insulated from harsh realities by a beautiful structure of naïve illusions.

But, you ask, what would I do? Would I rush in to confront what might be multiple shooters armed with rifles, while I was armed only with a pistol and wearing a vest that would not stop a rifle bullet ‒ assuming I had a vest at all? Or would I freeze? I don’t know. None of us do until we are actually in that situation. And I recall this proverb:

It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.
‒ Aesop

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobs with the 10 highest death rates (not numbers) are, in ascending order: landscapers, electric linemen, farmers and ranchers, truckers, steel workers, refuse collectors, roofers, pilots and flight engineers, fishermen, and loggers. That is, logger is the most dangerous job in America. Police officer is not on this list.

This in no way diminishes the heroism and sacrifice of the 128 law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2017. But it does offer some perspective. When you sign on for a job, you agree to take on the risks of that job. And when you take an oath, you take on a solemn obligation to carry out that oath to the best of your ability.

Nor shall you stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord.
Leviticus 19:16 (New American Bible)

That said, I will now give my opinion of what police should do when they are faced with an active-shooter event:

● If there is only a single officer, he should use his best judgment. Should he wait for backup as per procedure? Or should he move toward the sounds of gunfire? If he cannot neutralize the shooter, at least he can help the injured. In the Parkland tragedy, paramedics were ordered not to enter until the school was “secured,” which may have taken 20 minutes. Some of the victims may have bled to death during this time.

● But if there are two or more officers, they should enter immediately and move ‒ carefully but promptly ‒ toward the sound of gunfire. And paramedics, if present, should enter with them.

The primary mission of law enforcement is not to clear the building, starting from the opposite end, as was done at Parkland. Their primary mission is not to care for the injured, important though this is. Their primary mission is not to assist people ‒ in this case students ‒ in exiting the building.

Their primary mission is to engage the shooter or shooters and neutralize them as soon as possible, before more innocents are murdered or injured. The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday knew this in 1881. It’s long past time we learned it, too.

Wyatt Earp didn’t have a radio to call for backup, or to receive instructions from a micromanaging superior who wasn’t there and couldn’t know all the facts. He didn’t have a thick procedure manual that attempted to cover every conceivable situation, but never could, and left no room for individual initiative or judgment.

All Wyatt Earp had was a badge, a Colt .45 “peacemaker,” and an oath. And of the three, the most important was the oath.

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.



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