Las Vegas, SWAT Teams, and the Cult of the Gun

Sniper rifle raffled at Urban Shield SWAT expo.
Sniper rifle raffled at Urban Shield SWAT expo.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in California recently claimed that the Las Vegas shooting on October 1 is reason to continue the annual SWAT team competition and gun show known as Urban Shield. But programs like Urban Shield are unlikely to stop violence as occurred in Las Vegas earlier this month. In fact, they are likely to make matters worse. Here is why.

The Las Vegas Police Department could do nothing to stop the killing of 58 people in Las Vegas. They entered the shooter’s Mandalay Bay Hotel room a full hour after he stopped shooting, finding that he had already killed himself. He had been shooting for only ten minutes.

Las Vegas’s counter-terrorist elite police squad, which has trained for these incidents since 2009, did not get to the shooter’s hotel room at all, and could not accurately fire at the shooter from below.

What happened in Las Vegas is consistent with most active shooter situations, which typically end in 5 minutes or less. An FBI study of 160 of these shootings found that a majority of them ended on the shooter’s initiative, often by suicide, before law enforcement ever arrived. In another 21 of these shootings, unarmed citizens – mostly school personnel - successfully restrained the shooter.

Sheriff Joe Lombard went even further, claiming that police who arrived at the hotel room well after the shooting had stopped “prevented a thousand deaths.” In a Sixty Minutes piece, overawed interviewer Bill Whitaker buys without question the version that police stopped the shooting short. First, he cites the Sheriff saying that the shooter had “an escape plan,” and an officer who entered the room says, “he could have held us off for hours.” But that’s speculation; the shooter was already dead from his own hand.

Then Whitaker draws on the initial and mistaken timeline that “the shooting stopped shortly after security guard Campos and the first of Sheriff Lombardo's officers arrived on the 32nd floor.” We now know that Campos was shot before the massacre, which ended at 10:15. Police call records published by National Public Radio show that the police arrived on the 32nd floor two minutes later. However, because of a screwed-shut hallway door, fear of possible booby traps, and the earlier firing into the hallway, they didn’t get to the shooter’s door until 11:09.

Sheriff Lombard and other police have provided no evidence that actions by police in the hotel in Las Vegas, as courageous and dedicated as they were, saved any lives. The shooter had positioned cameras outside his room and fired into the hallway when security guard Jesus Campos approached the room, wounding him, before beginning to fire into the concert. Campos may have accelerated the shooter’s plan. But it was concert-goers and first-aid workers who provided immediate assistance to those suffering from gunshot wounds. Before official responders could arrive, by-standers carried out the injured, applied tourniquets, and brought survivors to hospitals in their vehicles. “Everybody that was alive or salvageable was dragged outside the venue by bystanders, all the great Samaritans,” said Gregory Cassell of the Clark County Fire Department.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office used the shooting to make the case for police to have armored vehicles that break down a door. Law enforcement often deploy such tank-like vehicles at protests, but they were irrelevant to stopping the shooter on the 32nd floor in Las Vegas. Yet Kelly asked a pertinent question: “How do you prevent high rise, high density attacks on innocent people?”

Police function as responders, not preventers. We should focus more of our energies on preventing the mass killing that is made possible by easy availability of assault weapons. Such weapons can easily be made to be fully automatic machine guns. In addition to the use of assault weapons in Newtown Connecticut, Las Vegas and other massacres, the weapons’ legalization after 2004, according to a New York University study, directly contributed to the escalated lethal firepower of organized crime in Mexico and to hundreds of murders and other violent crimes there.

Even the most extensively trained military-style SWAT teams are ineffective against a shooter from 32 floors firing up into a crowd of 22,000. But the teams trained in such tactics will use them in other policing encounters in the community. Most deployments of Bay Area SWAT teams are for serving warrants, and most SWAT teams are made up of officers on other police duties most of the time.

In fact, the annual Urban Shield exercise reinforces the cult of the gun, of which the Las Vegas shooter was such an enthusiastic member, by raffling off sniper rifles and giving away high-powered rifles to SWAT competition winners. Last month, I served as an observer of the Urban Shield event over three days. It is hard to convey how deeply the culture of guns pervades the Urban Shield vendor show and exercise. Assault weapon producers Sig Sauer and FN Herstal, who also made some of the guns found in the Las Vegas shooter’s hotel room, have been among the vendors at Urban Shield.

Urban Shield exercise scenarios also leave no time for realistic de-escalation, so they become practice to kill. De-escalation requires slowing down interactions with suspects, but in Urban Shield the action in a scenario must be completed in 15 minutes in order to move on to the next one. In one exercise scenario, SWAT teams initiated gunfire on terrorist Hezbollah role players, who were patrolling a rural area, ambushing them. This is a wartime protocol.

The men playing the roles of the killed terrorists wore kaffiyehs, an Arabic scarf that tagged them as Muslim, as “other.” The scenario evaluators, recently returned from war-fighting in Afghanistan, reinforced the protocol, telling a SWAT team that, “Increasingly what we are seeing over there [in Afghanistan] you are seeing here: it’s coming up over the border,” as if immigrants from Mexico were establishing terrorist camps in Alameda County.

Thirty-six SWAT teams, most from the Bay Area, participated in sequenced competition in this scenario. As police return from Urban Shield to their communities, we cannot calculate what will be required to undo the damage of this practice for offensive military operations against those whom law enforcement perceive as suspects.

Instead of further militarizing police in our communities, we should respond to the Las Vegas shooting by reducing the legal availability and cultural worship of high-powered guns – in anyone’s hands – that are designed only to violently take human life.

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