It was well past midnight when the coroner began to take away the bodies.
The Trolley Square shopping center massacre, on Feb. 12, 2007, occurred just a few blocks north of my home in Salt Lake City. I was quickly dispatched to the scene by my then-employer, The Salt Lake Tribune, and I remained there until long after the five murder victims had been taken to the morgue.
Then, as now, the tragedy quickly prompted a conversation about the role of guns in our society.
Except then, in the aftermath of the heroics of an off-duty police officer who engaged the gunman until fellow officers could arrive to assist, the conversation was about how much worse it could have been if there hadn't been a concealed weapon carrier dining at the mall on that terrible night.
Gun control advocates — of which I am one — generally seem to forget about Trolley Square when debating the need to limit access to personal firearms. They ignore the fact that, in the seconds before Officer Ken Hammond's intervention, the gunman killed five people, while in the terrifying minutes that followed no other innocent bystanders were harmed.
Gun ownership advocates — of which I am one — often seem to suggest that any concealed weapons carrier could have and would have done what Hammond did. That's a laughable contention in a state where concealed carry permits are available to just about anyone for a few bucks after a four-hour class that doesn't require would-be permit holders to demonstrate they can actually handle a gun.
Let's get real. This debate's not taking us anywhere anyway. There are enough non-military firearms in this nation to arm every man, woman and child. And even if legislation could address the ridiculously vast stockpiles of private guns and ammunition in this nation, it would not pass Constitutional muster in a Supreme Court that, in recent years, has broadly struck down state and local gun control measures.
The lesson of Trolley Square, a lesson that we can and should apply in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is not that we need more or less gun control, or more or fewer concealed firearms. Rather, the lesson is, and should be, that it's good to have well-trained people in the right place at the right time.
And at least when it comes to public schools, that is something we can do right away, without legislation, without political belligerence, without waiting for the courts to opine and without spending a single penny more than we already do on school safety.
At this moment, three blocks from Trolley Square, a fortress is rising. The $125 million Salt Lake City Public Safety Building is being built, in part, because the city's police department has outgrown its older downtown digs.
You might think police work is an outside-in endeavor — in other words, most of the work is done outside the office. In reality, even patrol officers spend a significant amount of their time in the office, writing reports and tending to other administrative duties. So a lot of space in our city's new public safety building will look like space in any other office building — long rows and columns of cubicles, at which will hunch dozens of cops at a time as they tend to the pencil-pushing parts of policing.
That's work that can be done anywhere. Including a small office in any — and every — public school in the country.
That's good policy anyway. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Justice has promoted Community Oriented Policing, a set of guidelines that, among other things, seek to create community partnerships and disperse officers geographically across a jurisdiction (much as elementary, middle and high schools are distributed across a community.)13 comments on this story
Already, some legislators are talking about placing more school resource officers — police men and women assigned full-time to a specific school to help maintain order and safety — in public schools. That's a nice idea — and an expensive one. And according to a report by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, a lot of resource officer time is taken up doing work that could (and sometimes should) be done by teachers and administrators.
By contrast, non-resource officers assigned to complete their paperwork on a set schedule in a school-based office would cost their communities nothing. They would provide presence, and — if necessary — a rapid response to problems of significance at and around the school. On most days, they would simply use a small desk or office to do what they'd be doing anyway. And on very bad days, they would be a well-trained person in the right place at the right time.
There is no single solution to this terrible problem. But the gun control debate is endless and winless. Satellite police offices can be in our schools tomorrow. And should be.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University. He is the father of a kindergarten student and the husband of a public school educator.