Many of the original flaws of the report on the Virginia Tech shooting stem from decisions made before a word of it was written. In the first place, the idea of a state-sponsored panel investigating a state institution is a conflict of interest—I have said that before, but it bears repeating. That conflict of interest probably explains why the report does not hold anyone accountable for anything. Furthermore, from the outset, the credibility of the Review Panel and their report was undermined because of the failure of the review panel to have subpoena power (just as in the case of Colorado) and the inability of the panel to have people interviewed under oath. The justification for hiring TriData was their experience with the Columbine shooting, so surely someone should have been aware enough to learn the lessons that the Columbine report stated so clearly that in the wake of tragedy, people will try to protect themselves from blame. Without the power to subpoena, the review panel simply had no teeth.
The systemic flaws in the panel itself play out in the Virginia Tech report. There appear to be eight major failings:
First, the report did not address issues such as identifying mistakes in judgment and the individuals who should be held accountable for their actions or inactions. Indeed, the report is an exercise in avoiding accountability and legal liability.
Second, the panel itself, which investigated the tragedy and wrote the report, is a prime example of conflict of interest. A state panel examining the behavior of state employees and a state organization cannot be completely objective. To even suggest that the panel was completely objective is sheer folly—particularly when the state was so well represented and not one member of the victims’ families was a panel member. Instead, there is the state-selected family representative and spokesperson on the panel—again, a conflict of interest that is not conducive to impartiality.
Third, several key players did not fully cooperate with the review panel. This lack of cooperation is both disheartening and puzzling. Specifically, the Virginia State Police, the ATF, and the gun dealers “declined to provide the panel with copies of the applications” Seung Hui Cho completed when he bought the weapons that would eventually kill over thirty innocent people. The report notes that “the Virginia State Police … did describe the contents of Cho’s gun purchase applications to members of the panel and its staff.” The state police’s willingness to “describe” is a limp attempt to explain their failure to fully cooperate and provide the panel with documents related to the shootings and is a major flaw in the report—it is inexcusable.
Fourth, the report repeatedly falls back on passive voice sentences that obscure who did what and when; who knew what and when; and who acted and didn’t act. The authors of the report carefully chose their words in order not to identify any individual by name.
Fifth, the panel was impeded in its work by the FOIA rules that did not allow more than two members to meet together or speak by phone without it being considered a public meeting. This is bureaucracy at its worst. The report needs to be more specific in detailing the problems this bureaucratic obstacle presented.
Sixth, the report sugar-coats glaring errors and problems: for example, on page 10, the report talks about its findings and recommendations being of two different kinds: “What was done well,” and “what could have been done better.” The report should talk about people in positions of authority failing to do their jobs.
Seventh, the report appears to make excuses for the decision of the university’s Policy Group not to put out a campus-wide alert following the discovery of the first two bodies. But the previous August, the university had put out an alert that a convict named William Morva had escaped from a nearby prison and killed a law enforcement officer and a guard. The alert indicated that the murderer was on the loose and could be on campus. The university set its own standard in August of 2006 by issuing that alert, and then violated that standard in April 2007.The report skirts this critical point.
Eighth, a former head of the state police should not have chaired the panel. Here again is another example of a conflict of interest. The result appears to have been a downplaying of the mistakes made by the police on the day of the shooting—and probably mistakes they made in not placing Cho’s name on the list of those people prohibited from buying guns.
In connection with systemic flaw eight, the report says that the police may have made an error in reaching the premature conclusion that their initial lead (following the discovery of the first two shooting victims) was a good one and that the person of interest was probably not on campus. May have made an error? They did make a very serious error by jumping to a premature conclusion and giving the wrong impression to school officials. Michael and I have examined in detail this fatal mistake earlier.
In sum, the report fails to do its job in critical areas; it is bland, and raises no real red flags. The report is the equivalent of reading a book with no thesis. The recommendations indicate this or that “should” be done. The “shoulds” relate to such things as analyzing, training, complying with this or that act, police being members of panels, and so on and so forth. Yes, these “shoulds” need to be done. But, nowhere does the report say that individuals must (or even should) be held accountable for their actions or inactions; that organizations and individuals must be held accountable when they break their own standards and it results in over 30 lives being lost. (To be continued)