A.J. DeAndrea

SWAT officer

Video transcript

I’m A.J. DeAndrea. On April 20, 1999 I was part of the Jefferson County regional SWAT team that responded here to the high school.

Being in this building takes me back to that day. I was asked a little bit ago, ‘Does it seem like 20 years?’ And there’s times it seems like forever ago and then there’s times when it seems like it’s right now. It’s half of a heartbeat ago. It’s something that stays with you. When I think about that day, there’s not one good memory.

Failures of the response to Columbine

I’m very uneasy in here. When I’m in here, when I’m in these four walls, all that I’m left with is the failures. When I’m outside of here I can see all the good that came from it.

I honestly think that we thought it wasn’t gonna happen. We hadn’t been worldly and paying attention. You know, school shootings had happened before this. But we thought these are just an anomaly and it’s not gonna happen here. This is a great community. We were very skilled at what we trained and what we could do, but we just weren’t forward-thinking enough to think it’s gonna happen here.

You want to talk about being unprepared? I mean, we had a plan. We were prepared. It was just the wrong plan.

We were prepared for the old barricade, right? We thought this was a SWAT dilemma and so the protocol back then was what we call the ‘four C’s’—contain- control -contact -call SWAT. That's still the protocol today for a barricade, if you've got a guy in a house, he's got a gun, he’s fired a couple rounds, no one's in the house with him. It's the same protocol.

So that's the plan that we had. It was the wrong plan.

We were not forward-thinking enough to say ‘Wait a minute, by the time SWAT gets there, it’s way too late.’ And it took this… it took Columbine for us to change our mind, to change the way that we viewed the world, for us to understand that we did not… I don’t think we understood the dilemma and I don’t think we had the right tactics in place. You know, we sat there. And looking at this failure, this was a failure in forward thinking, in planning, in preparing.

In my professional world it was probably the most profound moment I’ve been through.

It changed the way that you looked at your own profession, it changed the way that you looked at the media, it changed the way you looked at the legal system, it changed the way you looked at the community. It changed… the day changed everything.

Lessons from Columbine shape training for law enforcement, schools

After Columbine, right here kind of became the epicenter, where the active shooter program started to roll out. What that was, was training the patrolman. Giving them the skills, the equipment, to be able to go into the building and address the threat.

And I’ll tell you, that was met initially by resistance. When we first started teaching that, your patrolman that has been doing that job for a while (your patrol officer I guess I should say, that had been doing this job for a while) they’re like, ‘That’s not our job! That’s SWAT’s job!’

It’s crazy now. You talk to a young police officer right now that gets out of the academy, they know that’s their job. They know they’re gonna go to work, they’re gonna go inside. And maybe by themselves. But back then, this was a whole way of changing… the whole thought process changed.

The bottom line is, for the layman, the faster the cops are in there and in the building addressing the threat, the suspect can’t continue to kill. It’s just simple.

It started to force communication between the school districts and law enforcement and it started before some of those conversations. I think it forced us to develop better relationships with the school.

So schools did start to develop their own emergency plans and their own protocols but there was no standardization about it. I mean, you could go within Jefferson County School District, from high school to high school, each principal would have things just a little bit different. On a critical day, that that's to make things difficult. Columbine started that conversation.

Responding to Platte Canyon High School shooting

September 26, 2006. Get the call. It was almost the exact call from dispatch that I got at Columbine. You know, ‘Man with a gun, shot fired.’

Instead of saying Columbine, they’re saying it’s Platte Canyon. It was almost the exact same verbiage. Law enforcement was much more prepared because they understood the dilemma better, because they had studied, they had learned, they've been trained, they trained hard. They have relationships with the schools that allow them to get in and do some of those things and train, and if nothing else, walk through the school. So the first time you go into it, it's not on a critical day.

And you’ve got a brave Park County deputy deploying by himself into that building. He knew the layout. He wasn’t bogged down by the layout, he wasn’t trying to figure out ‘Where’s this particular room?’ And that deputy, without hesitation, goes down that hallway, breaks into that pod and has that confrontation with the suspect right there at the entrance of room 206. And in my opinion, without a doubt, saved lives. He made that dilemma smaller, which allowed us then when we came up, you know Platte Canyon is about 80,000 square foot. We’re just worried about 28 feet by 25 foot, one room. And that was all from the courage of that deputy getting inside that building, and those are lessons learned from Columbine.

[Despite law enforcement’s efforts, the gunman ended up killing one student, Emily Keyes, before shooting himself.]

We had a really good plan. The thing that sometimes I think we don’t take into account: the suspect always has a say in how this thing’s gonna go.

In my mind, that day was a failure. Because we lost Emily. There’s no one that will ever be able to convince me that that was a success.

Responding to Youth With a Mission shooting

December 9th, 2007. Youth With A Mission, which was a mission or school, and it was a dorm room. But this is a more of a college-age group, it's not a not a high school. A little bit after midnight a gunman goes in there. He begins to shoot. It's an active shooting event.

There wasn't a lot of conversation at that point between law enforcement and fire service to get the fire service into an unsecured scene. Really, the protocol still was they were going to they weren't going to come in until law enforcement could say that the scene was secure. No harm on them, it's just that's where we work and so right after Platte Canyon we were having that conversation. We began to train with a private paramedic group that we had in our city that was providing our paramedic service, and we began to train, have a conversation, to just tell them, ‘Hey if you can just get the ambulances to the building, if we can give you protection, if you can get the ambulances to the building, we'll take the victims to you.’

That night… and really what has kind of become the standard now… is if there's no shots being fired, the focus of energy becomes the victims. So that doesn't mean you don't have a contact team, doing some work, still looking for a bad guy in the building, right but really there's no more shots being fired. So the focus of energy becomes and those that have a chance to live, that if we can get our hands on them, if we can get them out of the building into an emergency center, they've got a better chance of living. And really the first example of that was why within 10 minutes of the first 911 call, the four victims that were shot were loaded up in an ambulance and secure area where the suspect was, but under police protection, those ambulances came in, and they were on their way to the murder scene.

Now unfortunately that night both Tiffany and Philip succumb to their injuries in the operating room. But we gave them the best chance to survive.

Training law enforcement across the world

We learn, right? So that all the lives that have been lost in these senseless killings aren’t in vain, because we’ve learned, and we’ve made changes, and we’re taking responsibility for what our part is. And that’s the message.

That training from Columbine has saved lives everywhere across this country and across Canada and even in Europe, without a doubt.

I’ve trained in every state in the nation, I’ve trained in almost every providence in Canada. I’ve been to Europe multiple times to teach and train.

It’s because of those bad days, and I think the willingness to learn from those things, that allows me (and other people, not just me) to travel the country and train.

Evacuate, evade, defend

This is a societal issue. How to we empower our society to take responsibility for themselves, to give them life-saving strategies, so that if this thing kicks off, if it happens, if it your given day, you know what to do.

Those conversations are being had in the schools, we’re empowering children to make decisions. Those children that have gone through the educational system have now gone into the workplace. And it’s an interesting conversation because they go to their HR and they’re like ‘What’s our active shooter plan?’

And again my generation, we don’t talk about this, that’s taboo. That generation talks about it. And it’s forcing us now again to look and say ‘Okay now we’re talking about the workplace. We’re talking about everyday life.’ People want to be able to survive.

And so we talk about evacuate, evade, defend. The conversation, to help people understand, if it’s happening, the best thing to do: get away. If you can’t get away, evade, to a point where you can barricade, or evade, so you can just can’t become a target. And, moment in time, if your life is on the line, defend yourself or those that are next to you.

And so we start having these conversations, and now people are empowered, people understand, ‘Hey, I’ve got options.’

Las Vegas happens. Let’s just throw that out there first. Las Vegas happens, one of the individuals that we trained is there, hears the gunfire, and knows what to do because they were empowered. And I get an email, ‘A.J. I heard your voice, I knew what to do. Thank you,’ right? ‘My friends, my family, we’re good.’ Another active shooting takes place closer to home. I get another email. ‘A.J. I knew what to do.’ Because why? Because we had the conversation.

Daughter survives mass shooting

So now let’s go to California. It’s a dark, it’s November, Thousand Oaks, right?

Um. I’m laying in bed. On my phone I get a text, and as I look at it, it’s my daughter. My oldest daughter. She was working out at UCLA. And I didn’t know this, she’s a grown woman, she’s working out at UCLA, she went to the bar that night. And as I look at this text, it says, ‘I love you guys.’ Now that is the same text that Emily sent her father. And of course my daughters know all of that. They know the Keyes [family.] My daughters help me train, alright, they understand? And for me, that’s a trigger. I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’

She says, ‘Dad, I’m in the bar, there’s gunfire, I’ve made it to the attic where I’m barricaded but there’s still a lot of gunfire.’

And you know, you talk about the events that I’ve been involved in. When you’re there as a first responder and you’re making decisions and you’re kind of in control, not all the time, but you’re focused doing your job. That night was the most hopeless I’ve ever felt in my life. Helpless, I guess. I was paralyzed.

So I’m on the phone with Ventura County dispatch. I’m telling them, ‘Hey, my daughter’s texting me. She’s in the attic.’ I had pulled up the 911 app, and thankfully Ventura County’s dispatch was not, uh, encrypted, so I could hear the radio traffic, right? So I’m listening to the radio traffic, I’m texting her, I’m talking to them, I’m sharing the texts that she’s giving me to their dispatch, and of course I’m booking a flight to Los Angeles on my iPad. So we text. And I could hear the radio traffic, I kinda had an idea of what was going on, and you know, she says there’s no more gunfire.

And finally she’s like, ‘Dad, I can see SWAT.’ And the Ventura County SWAT team pulled her out of there, they handed her off to Oxnard PD, and I was on my way to DIA.

I got a text from a buddy of mine in Montana, a guy that I had trained, and he goes ‘You know, A.J. you don’t want to hear this right now, but your daughter’s alive because of what you’ve done, because of the training that you’ve done to law enforcement, to fire, to EMS, to civilians.’ And I don’t know if I can say that. But it came full circle. It came full circle.

My daughter’s alive because she was empowered. She was empowered because we had the conversation, because we didn’t make this some taboo crazy thing. We understand that we’re gonna be real about this, that this could happen, and if it does, it’s our responsibility, right? And she did what she needed to do to survive.

Because there’s no doubt in my mind, had she panicked, had she not formulated a plan, I don’t believe she’d be here today.

A.J. DeAndrea was a member of the Jefferson County SWAT team that responded to Columbine High School, and he returned to Columbine High School for this interview. He said law enforcement did not have a tactical plan to capture an active shooter inside a school. Such tactics did not exist in 1999 and by the time his SWAT team arrived, 12 students were already dead and the killers had committed suicide. A teacher, Dave Sanders, bled to death as the team was searching the school and rescuing students. DeAndrea helped rebuild the SWAT team and has spent the past 20 years formulating and training the evolving tactical response to active shooter incidents. He has trained law enforcement officers and organizations all over the United States as well as Canada and Europe.