Sheriffs on alert after Columbine massacre

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 15, 1999

By LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / May 15, 1999

First in a seriesThe April 20 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.,prompted law enforcement leadership across America, and the communities they serve, to ask the same question: Are we ready for a similar incident? In the River Parishes, the answer came: We will know for sure, only if it happens.

“We’ve been lucky,” St. James Parish Sheriff Willy J. Martin Jr.commented, as copycat incidents failed to materialize in his jurisdiction.

What Martin has been doing, though, is a pro-active approach in getting guns off his streets, by making use of a special task force aimed at cleaning up the streets.

“Around December and January random shootings were almost a nightly occurrence. I put together a task force whose main mission was to getguns off the streets and cut out loitering,” he said.

The results, while not spectacular, still had their effect – a dozen guns picked up and eight arrests made.

The task force also outlined and documented the existence and leadership of three “wannabe” gangs and targeted its leadership. Sheriff’s personnelmet with parents and clergy and positive results are being reported.

“When things get rough on the street, things get rough in school,” Martin said. “When it’s calm on the streets, it’s calm in the schools.”So far, as he indicated, “We’ve been very fortunate.”As for any Columbine-type incidents, Martin affirmed his department is too small to have a proper SWAT team and added he would have to call in the Louisiana State Police should a major crisis happen in his parish.

He did say he has hostage-negotiator-trained personnel and resource officers in the high schools.

“I have put them on their guards,” Martin added.

Another asset St. James Parish can boast of is the only bomb-sniffingdogs in the River Parishes which, in recent years, has been used more in St. John Parish than at home.”There’ve been no threats, no crank letters,” Martin said, adding of the high schools themselves, “I think the faculties have done a terrific job.””One thing Superintendent (Walter) Landry did, he spent a lot of time in the summer planning for the school year,” Martin said. “There’s zerotolerance for disturbances and fights. It’s been one of the best schoolyears we’ve had as far as fights and the like.”In St. Charles Parish, Sheriff Greg C. Champagne stressed, “Each situationis different. Each situation has a different twist.”Champagne said there are so many random factors which make every such incident unique, whether it involves hostages, bombs, fatalities or a number of other factors.

Champagne said his resources enable him to have “several dozen” officers at the scene in a matter of minutes.

He continued, “We don’t have a SWAT team. We’ve never had a situationwhere we needed one.” Champagne added, though, “We have a Dynamic Entry Team,” primarily made up of officers from his narcotics bureau, who can make entry into buildings in the case of a standoff.

He also has agreements with surrounding law enforcement agencies for personnel, bomb or cadaver-sniffing dogs and any equipment he may require.

Handling major disasters is a situation for which his department is well- experienced, from storms to industrial accidents. However, he is not eagerto find out how well his department would handle a Columbine-type incident.

Ironically, of the three River Parishes, St. Charles Parish has experiencedmore fallout from the Colorado incident. Several arrests have been madeof students making threats or passing rumors of threatened violence. Thisincluded one at Hahnville High and one at Albert Cammon Middle School on April 27, and two more on May 6, at Destrehan High School, all charged with terrorizing.

Champagne immediately responded to the Columbine incident with round- the-clock security at each of the middle schools and high schools, added to the resource officers already on duty in each school. He also worked tocalm parents’ fears. The overtime cost is being shared with the St.Charles School Board.

“You run a risk of fanning the flames,” Champagne said, advising, “It’s not funny. We will take threats seriously.”St. John Parish Sheriff Wayne L. Jones called the Columbine High incident”a wake-up call to schools and law enforcement in the nation.”Jones added, “It made me, as a sheriff consider what I would do in that situation.”He said he feels “comfortable” that he has the resources for at least initial response, including his elite Felony Intercept Team. Phone calls tosurrounding agencies could gather all the personnel he needs. His recently-expanded K-9 squad is on duty around the clock. The parishes also shareradio frequencies to smooth communications.

Jones has urged school authorities to notify his department on any perceived threat, no matter how small.

“Even a prank has to carry a serious penalty,” he said.

He is also considering beefing up the resource officer squad, adding more schools to the list, funded by grant money from the U.S. JusticeDepartment. “It’s a concern to me, even as a parent, that kids are safe atschool,” he said.

Jones revealed that all three River Parishes sheriffs have met to discuss and review their resources and options.

“I don’t know if you can ever protect against this,” Jones concluded. “Youcan’t guarantee anything will ever happen, but we take every call seriously.”

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