April 21, 2007

Initial Scrutiny of Virginia Tech Police Unfounded

This week's horrific shootings at Virginia Tech defy any in-depth analysis. Although the incident may eventually be more fully documented than any other in our nation's history, in part due to the killer's own use of the media, and vigilante student journalists' attempts to record it with their cell phone cameras or handheld video cameras, no amount of knowledge can let us understand why it happened, or what really could have been done to prevent it. While some look at the two hour gap between shootings and the police's inability to stop it a massive intelligence failure, I can't possibly hold the law enforcement liable.

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, for just over a year I was the full-time crime reporter for the UC Berkeley student newspaper, the Daily Californian. While most stories consisted of tracking the occasional assault and battery or in more fun times, a rash of vending machine thefts, I did have the occasional proximity to bloodshed. And in one incident off-campus, I was at the scene of a double homicide, whose perpetrator, as far as I know, was never found.

That's where I look for some small parallel to the Virginia Tech massacre. To campus police, the shooter had taken two lives in an apparent domestic incident, and fled. While they were of course looking for him, there was no call to cancel classes or lock down the campus, in fear he had more violence in him. In the incident in Berkeley, there was no call to cancel classes or warn neighbors that the unfound gunman would strike them next. It was seen as a domestic incident, and nothing more.

What separated the Virginia Tech incident from the one in Berkeley in the fall of 1997 was, of course, that the killer wasn't done killing. Not by a long shot. For a domestic dispute to balloon into one of mass murder and chaos is so incredibly rare, it's without shock that the shooter caught the entire university community unready for what had come next. And going forward, as there are more calls for police scrutiny, ramped up security and furor to avoid copycats or more bloodshed, it may all be for naught. We cannot predict the next move in the mind of a deranged killer, and we shouldn't expect our law enforcement to be super-human. Given everything they knew at Viriginia Tech, and their expectation they were dealing with a domestic dispute gone bad, we cannot blame the police or the university for what happened next, as horrible as it was.

As easy as it is to find somebody to blame, there can only be one person - the one who pulled the trigger. It's not the police force or the university, or video games, or even the laws which let him purchase the guns. As they say, when there is a will, there is a way, and in this time of terror, his will was unstoppable.

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