I’ll give you an example of what I mean that relates specifically to Los Angeles.
The incident occurred nearly two years ago, in July of 2005. A 19-month old little girl named Suzie Pena died when her dad, Raul Pena, was pumped up on Tequila and cocaine, plus a night of fighting with his common-law wife and stepdaughter. Then, for reasons no one entirely understands, he got into a shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department. After hours of standoff, a department SWAT team blew through the back doors of the used car dealership where Pena was holed up inside a small interior office with his gun and his toddler daughter and, in an attempt to take out the dad, the cops shot the little girl too. The SWAT guys found her amid the smoke and debris curled in her dead father’s arms.
I was asked to report on the story, and so spent a great deal of time deconstructing the actions of the police, most specifically SWAT. At some point when I was talking to then LAPD Assistant Chief, George Gascon, trying to yank apart how everything happened, he brought up the school shootings at Columbine
“Look,” Gascon said finally—by then exhausted from media scrutiny, and by his own and everybody else’s grief over the death of this beautiful little girl at the hands of men whom we all counted on to save her. “Columbine resulted in a tremendous amount of soul searching on the part of law enforcement all over the country,” he said, “because people felt that the officers didn’t go in fast enough.”
So the LAPD team rushed through the door in a manner that was likely precipitous and unwise. They did it with skill and the best of intentions. But sometimes you don’t call it right. Members of the usually taciturn SWAT team broke down when they saw the outcome. One tragic mistake begat another.
Even at this early stage, there’s a growing pile of pronouncements coming from commentators and bloggers about how Virginia Tech should have been locked down immediately after the first shooting, how there ought to be security check points at our nation’s high schools and colleges or, for those on the right of things, about how university students should be allowed to pack firearms so they can blast back at any future campus gunman. (Interestingly, the students writing on the Virginia Tech message board shouted down such criticism.)
Surely in the days ahead there will useful lessons that emerge from the sadness. Clues missed. Things that could have been done differently.
This is what Chief Gascon suggested may have lurked somewhere at the back of the LAPD SWAT guys’ collective minds as they charged into the South LA car dealership that July afternoon; they did so with the hope that they could take the lessons learned from one tragedy and apply them to prevent another.
But, as it turned out, each tragedy was unique.
And so the unimaginable….the unendurable….came to pass anyway.