John S: Dragonslayer SRO
I had the privilege of serving with Deputy John S when he was NCOIC of the 355 Security Forces Squadron’s training section. But he wasn’t always in the Air Force.
I: US Marine Corps
John started as a Marine.
He served in the infantry for four years and became a fire team leader, before transferring to the military police, where he served as a watch commander, for 5 more years. He worked on a Fleet Anti-Terrorist Security Team.
In his own words, he had to come to grips with his own mortality as a young combat leader in Somalia.
John had been out of the USMC for two years when 9/11 happened. After those craven attacks, he (like many who’d gotten out of the military) felt a calling to go back in, to right the wrong.
John worked out a compromise with his spouse: he would re-enlist, but this time in the Air Force, which treated families better than the Corps had.
II: US Air Force
John served 11 years in the USAF. One of the best uses he could make of his skillsets in his new service was in the Security Forces. The SF (formerly SPs, Security Police, and APs, Air Police or “Apes” before that) had a dual mission: Law Enforcement and Security.
SF performs law enforcement functions, like Army MPs or the Navy Shore Patrol. Although drunk airmen sometimes do tear up the Club or beat their spouses, the LE function on bases is mostly unused. Mall security guards probably see more action.
Sometimes, really bad things happen, like when a former Airman shot up the base hospital at Fairchild. His killing spree was stopped by Andy Brown, a Security Police bicycle patrolman.
For further information about the Fairchild AFB incident, see Getting Iron for the Bullhorn God, or better yet, read Warnings Unheeded.
In January 1998, at Edwards AFB, and airman shot and killed another airman. When Security Forces TSgt Robert B. Butler pulled him over for driving erratically, he shot and killed Butler, the son of Philadelphia Police Officer Joseph Butler. SF troops chased the murderer to a dorm, where he killed himself.
But incidents like those at Edwards and Fairchild are the exception, not the rule, on Air Force Bases.
SF also guards nukes and airbases. Overseas, especially, their role is more like that of infantry than police.
It was in these “Airbase Ground Defense” (ABGD) missions that John and I both excelled. The SF career field attracted many former Army and Marine Corps infantrymen (like airman, the term applies to both genders). Mike C, probably the most competent Air Force Security Policeman I served with in Desert Storm, had been a former USMC scout / sniper.
John was a Nuclear Convoy commander in my old stomping grounds, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fields around Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The hydrogen bomb warheads of our ICBMs needed periodic maintenance. When they were transferred to and from the Weapons Storage Area (WSA) at Warren, the USAF took their security very seriously, for obvious reasons.
John deployed to Iraq three times as a Flight Sergeant with the 823 Security Forces / Base Defense Squadron. The 823 is part of the USAF’s highest speed, lowest drag security unit, the 820th Base Defense Group. Some USAF security forces personnel may have the mentality of a mall cop, but the 820th is a hard-corps combat outfit. Their skills compare favorably with those of the Marines and Army infantry, and they attend many of the same schools.
When I met John, we were training the younger airmen at Davis-Monthan AFB. I was assigned to the Combat Arms (small arms, or “ground weapons”) firing range. John was the NCOIC of the training section, and he was a consummate professional instructor.
III: Pima County Sheriff’s Department
After retiring from the Air Force, John was chosen from a list of 3000 applicants for his county’s sheriff’s department.
30 of those 3000 applicants were hired to fill John’s police academy class.
Now, when they have an Academy class, only about 300 people apply for those 30 jobs. Ironically, in an era when the public demands superhuman restraint and professionalism from their police, departments have far fewer applicants to choose from. Instead of picking the top 1%–the best of the best–they must choose 10% of the candidates.
Why are there exponentially fewer candidates to choose from? I can think of two reasons.
- First, law enforcement is no longer viewed by many members of the public as an honorable profession. When a kid is growing up and considering her or his life path, almost all of their sources of information, from the media to parents to teachers to politicians, tell them that police officers are lazy corrupt racist cowards. “ACAB,” “all cops are bastards,” adorns the walls of their communities, and nobody tries to stop this. Ironically, while police departments are trying more than ever before to recruit minorities, minority communities are being hit hardest of all by this tsunami of anti-cop propaganda. SRO programs (see below) can, to a certain extent, counter this by giving young people positive day-to-day interactions with law enforcement officers.
- Second, who in their right mind would want to be an American cop in the 2020s? Somebody tries to kill them for doing their job (when did apprehending bad guys become optional?), they do what they must to go home to their families, and a non-elected committee of busybodies who’ve never heard a shot fired in anger determine that yes, the first 7 rounds fired by the cop (in a matter of seconds) were justified, but that 8th shot a tenth of a second later was definitely premeditated racially motivated murder and the cop should be indicted for it.
John worked the street for three years as a Patrol Deputy before becoming a School Resource Officer (SRO).
What is an SRO?
SROs are perhaps the purest form of community oriented policing. The SRO role is, puzzlingly, controversial. To understand why, you could perhaps use some background.
The Full Circle of Community Oriented Policing
In the bad old days, cops patrolled on foot through neighborhoods. They could hear, say, the sounds of screaming or gunshots nearby, and ran to get there. They often were assigned to the same neighborhood, or “beat,” (as in “beat the pavement with your feet”), day in and day out. This enabled beat cops to get to know the people in their neighborhoods, and to know the “baseline” of the region. They had their finger on the pulse of the community.
This model of policing occasionally fell victim to personality conflicts and prejudices. People from “bad families” might not have gotten a break, even on those rare occasions when they were trying to turn their lives around. Conversely, those who knew the cop well night have been cut some slack when they shouldn’t have been.
Beat cops might not have been rife with graft and corruption, but foot patrol was certainly susceptible to it.
The Radio Car
Two technological innovations, automobiles and wireless radios, forever changed the face of law enforcement.
Officers in cars could theoretically cover a wider area and respond faster when dispatched.
Because they covered a wider area, they were less likely to know the people they encountered, or their history. They also could not hear, see, or smell what was going on as well as those on foot (you scoff at the smell comment, but as a Border Patrol agent on foot, I have often smelled the unwashed masses with their unique “I’ve just been in the lower Rio Grande river” scent before I could see them in the dark).
In short, the radio car (later called a cruiser, squad, or patrol vehicle) makes law enforcement impersonal. Impersonal law enforcement is more professional and evenhanded, but it is also more faceless.
Foot patrol never disappeared entirely, but it became a specialty assignment, like bike patrol or even horse patrol. Most patrolmen rode around in squad cars.
The subject’s history knowledge gap has closed somewhat with the advent of NCIC and other law enforcement databases that can sometimes give the cops a heads-up on a subject’s prior law enforcement contacts before they get there. Also, especially in smaller towns, even those patrolling in cars often have a personal history of encounters with “repeat customers.” This can be both life saving and prejudicial.
Many of those who blame the police for all of society’s very real problems and socio-economic disparities have been crying for a return of the beat cop, for what’s now called “community oriented policing.” Counterintuitively, these same self-appointed police reformers, most of whom know little more about how to enforce laws or keep society safe than what they got from watching NCIS, want to get rid of SROs at the same time.
SROs–the definitive community oriented policing
School Resource Officers are known by different titles in different school districts. Some are paid for out of a school district’s budget; they “belong” to the district itself and answer only to the district superintendent. Other SROs (probably most) are a specialty assignment for the local police or sheriff’s department.
Regardless of who pays them or who the boss is or what we call them, they all serve the same purposes.
SROs put a real, human face on what would otherwise be a magical superhero to many younger children and an evil bogeyman to many adolescents.
SROs provide positive role models, answer questions, and give guidance. They have passed a much more thorough background investigation–and periodic re-investigations–than most if not all of the teachers your kids spend their days with.
The so-called “school to prison pipeline”
If there is a possible downside to law enforcement in schools, SROs didn’t create it.
It has more to do with the fact that public schools have the responsibility of raising our children, but none of the authority to discipline or even guide them.
On Day 1 of my experience at Forbes Avenue Junior High School, Mr Walker, the principal, showed us the paddle he was authorized to tan our hides with and was not afraid to use. I didn’t like it and I didn’t like him at the time, but I did my best to make sure I never ended up on the receiving end of that corporal punishment. I don’t think I’m a worse person for it.
These days, if a kid is pitching chairs around, breaking glass, and hurting people, we punish the other kids instead, by removing them from their learning environment. The kid who is acting out sets the example for others to see of how to get your way. And we wonder why they later shoot up a 4th of July parade.
In high schools, instead of the monitor who finds you dealing in the hallway causing you financial loss by flushing your entire stash down the toilet in front of you, the schools have abdicated this perhaps arbitrary alternative form of punishment to the more even handed but also more haunting referral to a law enforcement officer. It could be a cop who responds to the school (a patrolman) or one is there on a more or less permanent basis (an SRO). The only difference is, SROs respond faster and know the students better.
Because this legalistic solution to the problem of kids dealing drugs or being violent in school is more likely to create a permanent record that will affect a juvenile’s job prospects, social engineers call it the “school to prison pipeline.” They blame it on the police response, rather than on the kid’s poor life choices, or on the fact that schools themselves are now powerless to enforce any sort of effective boundaries.
In the last several years, many schools got “woke” and terminated their SRO programs–only to ask them to come back after riots broke out in cafeterias.
Deterrence and Response to Mass Killings
These days, other considerations pale in comparison to the idea that SROs can be faster to respond to school shootings. The presence of SROs might even cause a killer planning his attack to choose a different, softer target.
While it’s easy to list those situations where security failed to deter an attack, it’s impossible to know how many were in fact deterred–probably a much greater number–because nothing happened.
The SRO at Columbine exchanged gunfire with the killers from about 50 yards, but failed to connect before they darted into the school. He had a pistol (a rifle probably would’ve given him the accuracy he needed at that distance), and not everybody is an Andy Brown. In 1999, their policy was to surround the school to prevent the bad guys’ escape before having SWAT go in. That time-delayed response cost lives. Now responding officers go in ASAP. SROs may be there already.
Well, not always. But again, those situations you hear about in the media of “Maverick won’t engage” SROs are the exception, not the rule. We don’t hear about the rule in the media, because unless it’s a bloodbath, it’s not newsworthy. Here’s are a few examples John found:
Mattoon High School
At Mattoon High School in Illinois, on 20 Sep 2017, a student began shooting other students in the lunch room. Angela McQueen, a math and PE teacher, off-lined the weapon, pointing it at the ceiling. A school resource officer jumped in there, disarming and taking the wannabe killer into custody. You probably never heard of that, because only one student was wounded, thanks to the quick actions of McQueen and the SRO.
Great Mills High School
At Great Mills High School in MD, on 20 Mar 2018, a teen fatally wounded one student and wounded another. The SRO, Deputy 1st Class Blaine Gaskill, intercepted and challenged the shooter at gunpoint. Gaskill shot the killer and the killer ended his own life. The entire incident, from start to finish, lasted less than three minutes–half the national average time it takes for non-SRO officers to respond to reports of shots fired.
Forest High School
On 20 Apr 2018, at a Forest High School in Ocala, FL, a 19 year old shot one student before he was swiftly apprehended by the SRO, Deputy Jimmy Long. Again, this happened within 3 minutes–half the national response time for non SRO officers.
Dixon High School
At a Dixon High School in IL, on 16 May 2018, an armed 19 year old approached a gymnasium crowded with students rehearsing the graduation ceremony. They lived to graduate because an SRO, Dixon PD Officer Mark Dallas, intercepted and confronted him. He shot at Dallas, who chased him out of the building, returned fire, and apprehended the wannabe killer.
Walnut Park Elementary
On 09 Jun 2022, an angry man attempted to break into Walnut Park Elementary School in Gadsden, AL. 34 kids were inside, attending a summer literacy camp. When an SRO asked him what he was doing, he attacked and attempted to disarm the SRO. The SRO shot him.
STEM School Highlands Ranch
Shamson Sundara, a security guard at STEM School Highlands Ranch, apprehended one of the killers (for details, see In Places They Don’t Talk About at Parties).
Who Becomes an SRO?
Some officers are voluntold to be SROs, but it is usually a volunteer gig. More specifically, people apply for speciality assignments within a department, and are assigned to them based on seniority, qualification, and / or at the pleasure of the jefes.
With the sole exception of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, every police officer is a human being. Each and every one brings their own personality, strengths, and weaknesses to the job. Further, we all grow and change as our life cycle progresses. I’m not the same person I was as a teenager, and I thank God for it.
When we look at who choses to become an SRO, some patterns emerge. General conclusions can perhaps be drawn.
For example, officers tend to become more interested in SRO work when their own children are school aged. This should surprise no one.
The career field also seems to attract a lot of lady cops. Women still only constitute a small percentage of law enforcement officers, but I’m guessing the percentage of SROs who are women is at least slightly higher.
Even in this allegedly egalitarian age, I sometimes get asked how I feel about women serving in law enforcement and the military. I respond that I’ve seen it with my own eyes: female officers stop bullets just as well as men.
Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, a Red Army sniper in WWII, sent 300+ Nazis to their graves while sporting two X chromosomes.
I used to think our personalities were almost exclusively nurture (upbringing) and very little nature (genetic components). I still think it’s mostly nurture, but I had to throttle back from that a little after raising my own kids (a limited sample, one of each gender).
We gave my son a doll when his sister was on the way, as a heads-up that he was no longer going to be the center of the known universe. He liked the doll, but would just as soon use it as a baseball bat. The first time I gave my daughter a doll, on the other hand, her entire face lit up. She gently cuddled it to her bosom.
Wow, I thought, there may be something to that genetic component after all.
It may well be that most females are issued with nurturing genes. If so, it stands to reason that “mama bears” would be attracted to the SRO career field, where they can protect, counsel, and help raise kids.
I’ve noticed, also, that 3/4 of the educators in our Active Killer workshops are female.
Many higher education institutions have their own police departments. Although their officers patrol the streets and respond to rapes like any other cops, they are also de facto school resource officers.
Some SROs come to it after getting burned out on the street.
I get it.
I distinctly remember the moment when I realized, after a few decades in law enforcement, that the thrill was gone.
We were serving a warrant on a wheel shop that was a front for a meth distribution organization. I was #2 in the stack, right behind a big guy named Mason. We’d already breached the wrought iron gate, but naturally, the sliding glass door behind it was locked. The breacher went to town on the door with the ram.
Broken glass was bouncing off my goggles and my face, but I felt impassive. Almost bored.
I was thinking, I remember when I used to get a rise out of this.
Not all, probably not even most, SROs are ROAD (retired on active duty). But even the ones who are just coasting and hoping to avoid a career ending lawsuit till they can punch out will still run to the guns in a crisis. It’s just in them. We only read about the rare exceptions who don’t.
John’s motivations are different than many SRO’s. He’s what I call a Dragonslayer.
At one time or another in the days and weeks after 9/11, the vast majority of Americans probably heaved a sigh and thought, Thank God I wasn’t on one of those planes.
More than once, a few of us (myself included) thought If only I’d been on one of those planes. Maybe, just maybe, a lot more people would be alive today.
It wasn’t some some Walter Mitty daydreaming of saving the day. Like John, I had already experienced the awful human costs of lethal interpersonal violence, so I no longer had any youthful delusions of combat’s alleged glory.
What’s more, I had grown to hate crowds, and airline travel. To me, the only thing worse than the claustrophobic discomfort of being trapped in a confined space for hours was the agoraphobic discomfort of being in an airliner with lots of other people.
At nearly 40 years old, having been through a few scrapes, I was aware that the odds of my prevailing over several trained terrorists, even those with box cutters and fake bombs, would’ve been formidable at best.
In contradictory terms, I knew I didn’t WANT to have been on one of those planes, but I still wished I had.
I used to think those thoughts were crazy, till I shared them with a few close warrior friends. Then I realized I was far from unique.
Psychologist (and former Army Ranger / West Point lecturer) David Grossman posited that true warrior protectors yearn for righteous battle.
It’s not a malady.
It’s who they are.
I’m guessing John felt the same way.
John looked around for the very worst evil he could find–what could be more evil than the mass murder of children?–and then sought out a position where he could place himself in harm’s way to prevent or defeat it.
As of this writing (July of 2022), John’s been doing the SRO gig for six years and counting.
Active Shooter Workshops
In summer, when school is out, John and Deputy Elliot L teach Active Killer Response for educators, assisted by other Pima County deputies and SROs from the Oro Valley, Marana, and Sahuarita PDs. They’ve been putting on these workshops for the last several years. Most of the teachers, administrators, and school bus drivers are from southern Arizona, but some have come from other states to observe how John and his team cover the subject.
This last summer, I’ve had the privilege of working with John and Elliot–and the other wonderful Pima County SROs–again, as we educate educators on how to protect their students from this scourge. John and Elliot teach fundamentals of Run – Hide – Fight. Then ICSAVE volunteers train on how to control bleeding, often assisted by the SROs.
After lunch, the educators run through various exercises exposing them to the sounds of blank gunfire and screaming kids. They have to figure out what to do in each surprise scenario.
John asks each of the educators to search their own hearts for the answer, before they find themselves facing an active killer:
“You may have only 30 seconds or a minute left to live. The question is, how do you want to spend it?“
Protecting your nation and your community is one thing. It’s quite another to lay your own progeny on that altar.
Two of John’s kids are in the Army, in the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Air Assault divisions. As I write this, one is in Europe standing by in case things go south between Putin and NATO.
As if that weren’t enough, another of John’s legacies is the hundreds of educators who are better prepared to save the lives of their students–and very well might one day–thanks to John’s tireless efforts in bringing them Active Killer training.
Plus, the many airmen and marines he inspired, motivated, or kicked in the pants to light a fire under them along the way.
I was truly blessed to have spent part of my career working with a few–very few–Dragonslayers like John.
–George H, SSG, AZ ArNG / TSgt, USAFR / SA, HSI (ret)