Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Incident

Of all the square miles of Los Angeles and its suburbs, I awoke today to find the location of ground zero for a police shootout and my place of employment to be identical. The TV in my bedroom popped on as it usually does at five a.m., and through the haze of sleepiness, I heard the words “Oakdale and Vanowen.” I sat up and stared at the dark and shadowy figures on the screen. All the streets surrounding that intersection were blocked off. Police cars and unmarked vehicles, fire department apparatus and trucks, and several large trailers marked “Command Post” lined the streets.

At five a.m., the details were sketchy: a man barricaded inside his house called 911 last night about nine to say he had killed three members of his own family. Police responded, and when the LAPD SWAT team attempted to gain entrance, two officers were shot. One died at a local hospital; the other was critically wounded. The suspect was still barricaded, and a tactical alert had been called by the police.

I called the vice-principal at home. She in turn called the principal, and we all went into standby mode, waiting to see if we would be allowed onto campus. I began calling fellow teachers to tell them to turn on the news. Clearly from the news helicopter shots, I could see our school. One of the command post trailers was sitting in the intersection right outside the school fence. Los Angeles Department of Transportation units permitted no traffic into the area.

Two hours later, and after a number of phone calls, police and administration officials closed school for today.

By eight a.m., the situation had become clearer. LAPD identified the deceased officer as Randal Simmons, 51, a veteran with twenty-seven years on the force. He had been shot in the neck upon gaining entry to the home in the 19800 block of Welby Way and died at Northridge Hospital about one a.m. this morning.

The second officer was James Veenstra, also 51 and with a similar history in the department as Simmons. He had been shot in the face and was in critical condition but expected to survive.

Two other officers suffered minor wounds.

Police identified the shooter as Edwin Rivera, age twenty. According to police sources he had a rap sheet and some history of mental illness. Neighbors also reported that he was in a gang. His family denied all of this, those that were still living, that is. Rivera killed his father and two brothers in the initial attack that instigated the 911 call. His stepmother made it out alive when police fired tear gas into the home.

Simmons was the first SWAT officer to be killed in the line of duty since the unit’s inception in 1967.

By nine o’clock in the morning, the incident was over. Fire crews battled the flames inside the home ignited by the tear gas canisters. Rivera lay dead in the front yard, shot by an LAPD marksman. Police commandeered our school auditorium to use, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, as a place to question surviving family members of the shooter. The school business manager said that because the neighborhood was evacuated, residents also camped out inside the auditorium.

I know we have a plan in place should something like this occur during school hours. After 9/11, those kinds of plans became commonplace in every workplace, building, school, and high rise. We did not have a solid plan for the timing we were faced with today. We needed a phone tree. Also, the school business manager did not have accurate email addresses for some parents. However, we adapted. The word got out, and for those that did not hear about it, I am sure the police barricades stopped them.

I spent the rest of the day watching news reports and getting caught up on work at home.

The school will reopen tomorrow. Meanwhile, flags will be flown at half-staff for Randal Simmons. This evening, several families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and they are in our thoughts and prayers.