SMCPD chief talks campus safety

Four deadly minutes were all it took for John Zawahri to carry out a shooting spree that began at his home and ended in the Santa Monica College library, culminating in his death and five others. In collaboration with the Santa Monica Police Department, the Santa Monica College Police Department officers were able to take down the shooter, quickly ending Zawahri’s rampage before more damage could be done.

Six months after the shooting, SMCPD has put a renewed emphasis on the need for campus safety and training. The goal is to assure that future emergencies can be handled with the same level of efficiency.

Among the added precautions, a new captain position has been established and given to Ray Bottenfield, formerly an SMCPD sergeant.

“Now there’s at least two managers in the department,” SMCPD Chief Albert Vasquez said. “When this whole incident happened, and I was running a whole operation, we still had to continue doing things. Having one person trying to get everything done is difficult, so that’s changed as well.”

The decision to appoint a captain was made before the shooting, but the incident helped expedite the appointment and revealed the necessity for it, Vasquez said.

The investigation of the shooting is still ongoing and pending presentation to the district attorney’s office. But Vasquez said that the department has learned its lesson for the future.

“For us and for the district as a whole, certainly the police department has taken its role really seriously, so this incident highlighted that the police department is fortunately ready for these unfortunate types of incidents,” he said. “Probably my biggest takeaway is that we need to keep doing that. Even when there were people saying we need to cut back during the budget issues, we continued on because it was important.”

Vasquez said the key lesson from the June shooting was that training for emergencies is critical. A new Faculty & Staff 911 Guide has been published and issued to SMC staff with important safety tips and information on how to deal with suspicious activities, emergencies and incidents similar to the recent shooting. The guide is modeled after the emergency guides used at major universities such as the University of California, Los Angeles.

Vasquez said that the Emergency Procedures manual, which is in the guide, was nearly complete when the shooting occurred, prompting small revisions to update it for the post-shooting environment.

He also said it was important that the campus opened the week after the incident.

“As tragic as the shooting was, the president [of the college], Dr. Tsang, made a critical choice in saying we need to open the campus back up on Monday,” Vasquez said. “The incident happened on a Friday. Monday morning at 7 we opened. The only place that didn’t open was the library because we had to finish in there.”

Training sessions are now being held for both students and staff for emergency preparedness. This was a program originally only for staff, but is now being expanded to include the student body.

Future sessions will be held on Friday, Dec. 6 from 1 to 3 p.m. in Room 215 of Drescher Hall and on Friday, Dec. 13 from 5 to 7 p.m. in Room 207 of the Humanitites & Social Sciences Building.

“Initially, I was back to wearing my uniform every day,” Vasquez said. “Now that time has gone by; I’m back to a suit. I carry my handgun on me in my suit. Now I carry it because you never know. Even though this is Santa Monica College and it is revered as one of the safest places, you never know.”