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Virginia Tech – another story

April 17th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


When something truly terrible happens,
as it did at Virginia Tech yesterday, there are bound to be collateral effects that unfold later on in ways that we can’t at the time imagine.

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.

Posted in campus violence, Civil Liberties, Police | 9 Comments »

9 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    Yeah, SWAT teams should be kind and gentle like Janet Reno’s team that yanked Elian Gonzalez from freedom and sent him back to a dictator.

    Every episode like this is tragic, but some things cannot be anticipated and all endings aren’t happy. But, as usual, the police get the blame rather than the criminal. You said that “for reasons no one entirely understands, he got into a shootout….” Why it wasn’t his fault. It was some outside reason…and, the police are to blame for the death of his daughter, whom he used as a shield. Yeah.

    But, to address your primary point, I agree with you on that. Every situation is unique and the lessons from one tragedy don’t necessarily help deal with another. Crazy people and their actions are not predictable.

    We have a huge Secret Service dedicated to protecting the President day and night, yet there have been failures there. If they can’t stop all those nuts, then how can we or the police do it for everyone in everyday life?

    Guns aren’t the problem and the police aren’t the problem. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with something that has no reasonable means of controlling.

  2. Mavis Beacon Says:

    You nailed it. I listened to one of the press conferences yesterday and grew concerned as the various questioners tried to pronounce one security policy after another as useless. How could any particular policy be named as failed until police could ascertain what actually occurred? Moreover, who really anticipates something like this? Nobody wants to admit they weren’t prepared, but campus police obviously aren’t expecting the worst gun rampage in American history at the first sign of trouble. It will take time to figure out how to improve police response/security, and I hope that the new policy will not forget that the vast majority of incidents are infinitely less serious.

    As a side note, we’re living in an NRA world. Every horrific example of gun violence serves as evidence of why we need more guns. Suddenly the current administration begins to make sense.

  3. richard locicero Says:

    Two points:

    1) all the “Security Experts” who talk of locking down a campus like Virginia Tech better explain how you do it. To keep it local I’d ask anyone to explain how you would “Secure” a campus like USC or UCLA. Somehow I don’t think the parents would like to send their kids to an ivy-covered San Quentin!

    2) Best comment on the tragedy came from Larry Johnson, the former CIA CounterTerrorist expert (and Classmate of Valerie Plame at the “Farm”) who pointed out yesterday that 33 dead would be an AVERAGE day in
    Baghdad and consider that the next time some fool – like John McCain – tells you things are improving.

  4. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Woody, it wasn’t my intention to criticize the LAPD with this post. I was making another point. But I wrote this very late last night so maybe didn’t make the point as well as would be optimum.

    The cops called it wrong. Sometimes one does. And sometimes despite one’s best efforts, it all goes to hell anyway.

    I’m impatient with the people who are quick to make stupid judgments about what SHOULD have been done that often lead to stupider public policy. If this happened in California, and we could prove gang affiliation on the part of the shooter, within a week we’d have pending legislation that made gang membership a Class 1 felony punishable by 25-to-life.

    (I’ve added a couple of lines to the original post that hopefully should make things a tiny bit clearer. Or not.)

    And, yes, obviously Raul Pena was to blame. He was a creep in more ways than I was legally permitted to write about.

    But, about the Suzie-as-shield thing, I saw the videos, and he wasn’t using the baby as a shield. That was preposterous. But once it was said, everyone in the media kept repeating it, parrot-like. What he did, however, amounted to the same thing. He held her with one arm, as he shot with the other hand. Frankly, my best guess is that he was keeping her from crawling around. When the shots were fired it had to have freaked her out. So what do you do when the baby gets scared and starts to cry? You pick her up. Most of us, however, are not busy shooting at police when we do so.

    Obviously, for a variety of reasons, the man was not in his right mind. And he got himself and his baby killed as a result.

    Richard, a number of people have made the Iraq comparison, which I keep thinking too. Too many dead kids, here AND there.

  5. Woody Says:

    Hey, more kids die of starvation and more people die from malaria each day in Africa than this. That means this problem isn’t of relative importance and can be used as a platform for all liberal causes. What class.

    You can’t even let people grieve and sort things out before this is turned into a political circus.

  6. richard locicero Says:

    While Woody is sending a big check to Oxfam I’d like to note that Mayor Antonio lost another one in the DCA when a 3 – 0 decision vacated the legislature’s action to give him more control over the LAUSD. Sounds like a big win for UTLA and the current School Board. Anxiously awaiting your Take Celeste – then we’ll talk.

  7. The reasonable woman Says:

    The good news and the bad news is that we live in an open society. It’s good because people get to come and go as they please. It’s bad because a lunatic with an arsenal can walk onto a school campus and start shooting.
    I was distressed to hear the campus police criticized for not shutting down the campus after the 7 AM shootings. There are 26,000 students at V-Tech and 2500 hundred acres. 10,000 of the students are computers and couldn’t have been reached in any case. I don’t know what people think the authorities should have done. I think this criticism is part of an imnipotent fantasy that there was some control but people didn’t take it. There is no control. Bad things happen. As Celeste says, there may be some lesson here, but it will take time to figure out what that is. Meanwhile we can just pray for solace for those who have lost friends, spouses, and children.

  8. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Richard, yeah, about the 2nd court of appeal decision…. Can’t say I’m surprised.

    I’ve been deadline ridden all day, but plan to blog about it tonight to open the discussion.

    RW, Nicely said. I agree about the clueless pundits who wax righteous about how V-Tech should have been shut down earlier. It’s been fascinating to watch the student’s reaction to the media accounts on the university’s message board. They talk about how the notion is unbelievably whacked. Interestingly, Brian Williams is the one anchor/newscaster who seems to get high marks from the V-tech students.

  9. Marc Cooper Says:

    My personal experience has taught me to be very careful about making severe judgements from afar. On the face of it, the delays by the campus police seem irrational and irresponsible. They probably were.. but frankly, I don’t know. Perhaps we never will.

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