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Aurora police praised for response to theater attack

Chief ‘and his officers have done everything right, by the book, with great determination,’ says President Obama


President Barack Obama greets Aurora (Colo.) Police Chief Daniel Oates, as Mayor Steve Hogan, right, watches after Obama arrived at at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., Sunday, July 22, 2012. Obama is traveling to Aurora to visit with families of victims of the movie theater shooting as well as local officials.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

By Gary Strauss and Kevin Johnson

AURORA, Colo. — As this Denver suburb slowly emerges from the chaos and grief surrounding Friday’s movie theater massacre that killed 12 and wounded 58, local police and other first responders are getting high praise for their fast response.

The suspect, James Holmes, had ample time to methodically plan his attack on a crowded movie theater and, authorities say, to rig his apartment with booby traps and explosives.

Aurora police arrived within 90 seconds after emergency calls from Century 16, where a scene of bloody mayhem was fast evolving about 20 minutes after the opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Police arrested Holmes and spirited scores of wounded to hospitals. Holmes, 24, is scheduled to appear in Arapahoe County Court this morning.

If not for fast-reacting law enforcement agencies, the death and injury toll at the theater and Holmes’ explosive rigged apartment might have been higher.

“It could have been far worse,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said. “The work of law enforcement agencies has been exceptional.”

President Obama, who flew here to meet with victims and families, praised Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates and other law enforcement officials for a “magnificent” job.

Oates “and his officers have done everything right, by the book and with great determination,” Obama said.

Survivor Rory Miller, who was celebrating his 19th birthday with friends at the movie, said he felt shotgun pellets graze his arm. As a fire alarm blared, he and others agonized over how to escape. They stayed put until a patron ran into the theater yelling that cops were outside — just the encouragement that energized them to flee.

“We came out of the theater, and there was a line of them, and then all the cops started running into the theater,” he said.

Aurora police drove several of the wounded to hospitals in their patrol cars, probably saving several lives.

“That’s amazing initiative,” said Frank Lansville, director of the Medical Center of Aurora. “Usually EMS is involved in triaging. But I think it was a natural response for (police officers) to make that sort of decision. I commend them for that because they got the worst patients here first.”

Much of the official praise has been aimed at Oates, a former New York City beat cop who rose to head that department’s intelligence unit. After 21 years at the NYPD, Oates led the Ann Arbor, Mich., police force until assuming command in Aurora in 2005.

Colorado Department of Public Safety chief Jim Davis described Oates as “the consummate cop.” “His favorite saying is, ‘I love police work.’ He says it all the time, and he absolutely means it. His blood is blue,” Davis said.

Oates, who declined interview requests, has displayed both flashes of anger at Holmes and a sense of humor in news briefings.

After a robot from the Adams County Sheriff’s Department disarmed the triggering devices to the IEDs in Holmes’ apartment Saturday, Oates said there was no question the booby traps were “designed to kill,” and most likely that would have been a cop. “Make no mistake about it if you think we are angry, we sure as hell are angry,” he said. He also expressed relief that Aurora wouldn’t have to foot the bill for the robot if the effort had gone awry.

Davis said the coordinated response underscored the strength of Aurora’s police, which provided key assistance in the 2009 investigation of Najibullah Zazi, who lived near Aurora and was convicted of plotting to bomb targets in New York City.

Aurora police are divided into three districts, each with a rapid-response team to deal with street crimes. Headquarters is less than a quarter-mile from the theater complex, which may have hastened the quick response.

Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Oates’ background made him ideal to manage twin crime scenes. “Oates is recognized for his expertise. He’s wired into directing this kind of response,” he said.

Praise for the police force has poured in on its Facebook page. “God bless you all!” Amanda Lloyd posted. “Chief Oates, you are an incredible man!”

Copyright 2012 Gannett Company, Inc.