50 Years After the UT Tower Attack: Lessons for Law Officers Remain Timely as Ever

It’s been nearly 50 years since former Austin, Texas, Police Department (APD) officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy confronted and stopped the sniper who was killing people from the University of Texas (UT) tower observation deck on August 1, 1966. While a school massacre was considered unthinkable to most people at the time, the occurrence of mass shootings has increased dramatically since then.

In fact, while only 1 mass shooting was reported in the United States in the 1950s, and 6 were reported in the 1960s, there were 42 such shootings in the 1990s and 28 in the 2000s. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates there were 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013 alone.1 The UT tower sniper, Charles Whitman, ultimately left 14 people dead and more than 30 wounded. Until the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, the UT tower attack was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.2

Time has not faded recollections of the shooting; many people still have all-too-sharp memories of the dead and wounded and the seemingly endless shots coming from the tower. Martinez says he remembers his advance across campus and up to the observation deck before coming face to face with the shooter.3

In the end, Martinez and McCoy shot and killed Whitman. They were accompanied in the final assault by police officer Jerry Day (then with APD) and civilian volunteer Allen Crum.
Even 50 years later, this event remains a relevant learning opportunity for law enforcement agencies. For one thing, it is a reminder of the critical importance of strong leadership in crisis situations. But even more important, it illustrates the considerable dangers and challenges that law officers continue to face during active shooter situations.

Evolving Protocols

The choices of a lone law enforcement officer in an active shooter situation today are still considered complex, and training programs have evolved to reflect that reality. The shooting event that spurred a turning point in active shooter protocol was the Columbine High School massacre. During that event, in April 1999, two teenage shooters killed 13 people and injured more than 20 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.4

The police officers who responded to the incident stood outside of the high school for more than 30 minutes while waiting for a SWAT team to arrive. As Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Thomas Manger wrote in The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, published by the Police Executive Research Forum in March 2014,

This type of training reflected the thinking at the time, and it was appropriate for hostage incidents or other scenarios in which it made sense to wait for a SWAT team to respond because SWAT personnel are better equipped and trained in special tactics than are patrol officers.5

However, the Columbine incident did not involve hostages, Manger adds in the same report. “It involved two youths intent on quickly killing people at random. Columbine brought a realization by law enforcement leaders that a much faster response was needed for active-shooter incidents.”6

Since the Columbine incident, police training has instructed law officers, even without the support of a SWAT team or other backup teams, to take out active shooters to minimize the loss of innocent lives. That concept is at the core of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT), based at Texas State University. ALERRT, which teaches terrorism response tactics for active shooter situations, includes Martinez’s autobiography, They Call Me Ranger Ray, on its recommended reading list. As of February 2016, more than 80,000 U.S. law officers had completed ALERRT training.7

“We can’t wait until you get a lot of backup, especially here,” Iredell County, North Carolina, Sheriff Darren E. Campbell explained, when his department completed ALERRT training in late 2015. “We have a large county. A responding officer may be 15 minutes behind. This trains the officers to have some tools to neutralize the threat on their own, if they had to.”8 Meanwhile, police protocols for active shooter situations continue to evolve. During a 2015 shooting at a movie theater in Antioch, Tennessee, for instance, not only did the responding police officers enter the scene without waiting for backup, they also focused on stopping the shooter without pausing to help the injured.9 That sharp focus on neutralizing shooters above all else is included in the current active shooter training police receive. It can be difficult for officers to accept, especially in school shooting situations when they could discover wounded children, but the goal must be preventing even more fatalities. With each second that goes by, more people could be killed.

In addition to shifting focus to the shooter, active shooter training also is broadening its audience beyond only police. First responders such as emergency medical personnel are being taught what to do if they arrive at active shooter scenes before law enforcement officers. In addition, community police officers are teaching civilians how to increase their chances of surviving active shooter situations before help arrives. Most civilian training courses call for running and hiding as first steps and fighting the shooter as a last resort.

Military personnel are also training for active shooter situations in cooperation with police agencies. In February 2016, for example, the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command and Naval Network Command conducted an active shooter drill at the Global Network Operations and Security Center building in Suffolk, Virginia. Along with the military personnel, representatives from the Suffolk Police Department, Suffolk Emergency Communications, and the Department of Homeland Security participated.10

Acknowledging the Dangers

While training better equips law enforcement officers to respond to active shooter situations, it can never eradicate the dangers officers face, says J. Pete Blair, director of research for ALERRT. In The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, Blair discusses his analysis of 84 active shooter incidents after 2000. He found that when a solo officer entered an active shooting scene and took direct action against the shooter:

  • The officer shot the attacker in 62 percent of the incidents.
  • The officer otherwise subdued the attacker 13 percent of the time.
  • The suspects killed themselves 25 percent of the time.

However, one-third of the officers who made solo entries were shot, too: acting without a team in an active shooter situation is dangerous. Blair notes that he is not advising officers to wait for backup if they’re the first to arrive at an active shooter situation, but he is advising them to understand the risks and to do as much as possible to prepare.11

Leadership Matters

Not only does the UT tower shooting put the evolution of active shooter protocols into perspective, the event also demonstrates the critical importance of ongoing police leadership and communication during major incidents.

The unorganized police response to the UT tower shooting in 1966 shows what can happen when law enforcement officers are forced to respond to major incidents without clear direction. Shortly after calls started coming in about shots being fired at the university, scores of officers from the Austin Police Department, Travis County Sheriff’s Office, and Texas Department of Public Safety responded.

Once officers were on campus, it was a struggle to communicate with headquarters. Radio coverage in the Austin Police Department vehicles was inconsistent. Some police went by police headquarters to pick up walkie-talkies, but they were the only ones at UT who had them. Meanwhile, phone lines were overwhelmed, and there is little record of police leadership attempting to reach the officers who were at the university or taking command of the situation on site.

Since that day, Martinez has reviewed the radio transmissions made by the Austin Police Department during the tower attack. It is surprising that there appears to be no accounting by the news media or written reports of the 1 1/2 hours of police radio transmissions that took place from the beginning call of reports of shots being fired at the University of Texas Tower to the conclusion with the sniper’s death.

A quick analysis of the radio transmissions indicates total chaos and the lack of a centralized command post to direct operations. In his speech for the 49th anniversary of the shooting, Martinez commented that it appeared no one was in charge for almost the entire 90 minutes. The police department was like a ship without a rudder on a stormy sea. It was every man for himself.12

The law officers on the scene made the best decisions they could to protect the public. But they were not unified on how best to accomplish that objective. Some focused on moving people away from the line of fire. Others attempted to help the wounded or request weaponry. There was talk of setting up a command center. In his book, A Sniper in the Tower, author Gary Lavergne notes that McCoy repeatedly asked what the plan was. There was no plan.13

Although he was off duty when reports of the UT tower shooting started coming in, Martinez heard about the attack on the television news. When he called his department and volunteered to assist, he was ordered to help direct traffic. As he arrived on campus, however, Martinez saw other officers handling traffic. Moments later, he saw wounded civilians lying on the campus grounds. His first thought was to go to their aid, but he quickly decided the best way to help—and save more lives—was to stop the sniper. He made several attempts to reach police headquarters by phone, but he never got through, so Martinez, like his colleagues, made the best judgement call he could: he would go up to the tower and confront the shooter. There was a lot of shooting going on, and the shooter needed to be neutralized.14

Scope of the Danger

Though none of the responding officers knew it at the time, the sniper was a former U.S. Marine sharpshooter. Whitman had entered campus dressed as a maintenance worker, rolling in a trunk loaded with weapons, ammunition, and incendiaries on a dolly.

Not only did Whitman shoot and kill people on campus, his shots also reached a busy street adjacent to the campus known as “The Drag.” His victims included children and adults, including one of the responding Austin police officers, Billy Speed.

Once Martinez arrived inside the UT tower, he encountered two other law officers, Texas Department of Public Safety Agent W.A. “Dub” Cowan and Officer Jerry Day, on the 26th floor, as well as Allen Crum, a floor manager of the university co-op, who had run to the tower shortly after the attack started.

In his book, They Call Me Ranger Ray, Martinez writes, “The sound of gunfire was extensive. I made the decision that I must go upstairs, as there was no time to waste. I had come to help, but now I knew I was the point man and suddenly I felt very lonely.”15

While one of the other officers focused on establishing communications with UT Security, Martinez headed upstairs to the observation deck. When Crum realized what he was doing, Crum insisted on going up with Martinez and providing cover.

After Martinez and Crum had made their way past the bodies of dead and wounded on the stairs and to the door to the observation deck, McCoy and four other APD officers arrived in the tower after coming through the tunnels under the campus. Day informed McCoy that Martinez and Crum had ascended to the observation deck. McCoy and Day joined Martinez and Crum on the observation deck, and, ultimately, both Martinez and McCoy shot the sniper. Whitman died from his wounds on the scene.16

Martinez has since been criticized for going up to the observation deck without waiting for the other officers in the tower, but he had no communications with anyone else in the police department, nor did he know when to expect assistance. Over an hour had passed since the shooting began, and no one had reached the observation deck, so Martinez had to assume that no one else was coming. While it clearly was dangerous to head up to the observation deck with only one armed civilian to cover him, Martinez remains convinced it was the right thing to do.17

Trainers now teach that the first officer or officers at an active shooter incident must confront the shooter as soon as possible to reduce the number of casualties, and that is now the policy of many police departments. Martinez comments that it is rewarding to learn that current police training for first responders at an active shooter event validates the actions he took on August 1, 1966.18

Flori Meeks began her writing career in 1988 as a reporter for a Detroit-area community newspaper. Since then, she has been a neighborhood news editor for the Houston Chronicle and has spent approximately 16 years as a freelance writer and editor.

1 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “FBI Releases Study on Active Shooter Incidents,” news release, September 24, 2014, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents (accessed March 18, 2016).
2 Christin Hauser and Anahad O’Connor, “Virginia Tech Shooting Leaves 33 Dead,” The New York Times, April 16, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/us/16cnd-shooting.html?_r=0 (accessed June 7, 2016).
3 Ramiro Martinez, conversation with author, 2016.
4 “Columbine High School Shootings,” History.com, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/columbine-high-school-shootings (accessed May 12, 2015).
5 Thomas Manger, “Introduction,” The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, Critical Issues in Policing (Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum, 2014), 1–2, http://www.policeforum.org/assets/docs/Critical_Issues_Series/the%20police%20response%20to%20active%20shooter%20incidents%202014.pdf (accessed May 13, 2016).
6 Ibid.
7 The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, “ALERRT: The National Standard,” http://alerrt.org/About (accessed May 13, 2016).
8 Mike Hanson, “FBI Provides ALERRT Training to Area Law Enforcement,” WCNC.com, May 7, 2015.
9 Stacey Barchenger et al., “Tenn. Movie Theater Shooter Armed with Pellet Gun, Hatchet,” USA Today, August 6, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/08/05/gunman-nashville-movie-theater/31171671 (accessed May 12, 2016).
10 David Finley, “Navy, Suffolk Police Department Train Together,” Suffolk News-Herald, February 13, 2016, http://www.suffolknewsherald.com/2016/02/13/navy-suffolk-police-department-train-together (accessed May 13, 2016).
11 J. Pete Blair, “Analysis of 84 Active Shooter Incidents Since 2000,” The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents, 5.
12 Martinez, conversation with author, 2016.
13 Gary Lavergne, A Sniper in the Tower (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1997).
14 Martinez, conversation with author, 2016.
15<L/sup> Ramiro “Ray” Martinez, They Call Me Ranger Ray (New Braunfels, TX: Rio Bravo Publishing, 2005), 70.
16 Ibid.
17 Martinez, conversation with author, 2016.
18 Ibid.

Please cite as

Flori Meeks, “50 Years After the UT Tower Attack: Lessons for Law Officers Remain Timely as Ever,” The Police Chief 83 (June 2016): web only.