The 32nd floor
An officer recounts responding to the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooter – and shares why we must focus as much on emotional trauma as we do active shooter response tactics
By Joshua Bitsko
The smell of gunpowder was still heavy in the air. I could feel a cool wind coming from the room, which was unusual for Vegas in early October as it is typically still warm. The fire alarm was still sounding from the explosive breach. I take a few deep breaths to slow my heart rate before I step into the hallway, expecting to hear gunfire from the now-open door.
Hours before all this, we were training dogs like we always did. As a K9 sergeant in a major metropolitan police department, overseeing the training of the dogs and the handlers was part of my responsibility. It was a normal night, and the radio was relatively quiet. Then I heard the unexpected. Automatic gunfire came over the radio into my earpiece. Since I could hear multiple channels at once on my radio, I quickly glanced down and saw that the shooting was coming from our Convention Center Area Command where the world-famous Las Vegas Strip is located.
I immediately understood what this was (at least the type of call); there was an active shooter on the Strip. I gathered a member of my team, and we jumped in our police cars. My heart was racing as I tried to get my mind around the magnitude of what I was hearing.
The Route 91 Harvest Festival was a multi-day country music festival with over 22,000 attendees per day. Multiple 911 callers, as well as officers on scene, were reporting an active shooter at the festival grounds, across the street from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. The pure chaos over the radio added to the weight of my foot on the accelerator. We had to get there.
As I sped closer, I began to realize this was not a typical active shooter scenario. The suspect was not in the grounds shooting people, but in an elevated position in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, shooting down into the crowd. Myself and another K9 officer parked on the south side of the Mandalay Bay and began to gear up. A few detectives joined us and donned their tactical gear as well.
Once we were all geared up, our piecemeal team made entry into the convention area of the resort. We pushed through to the casino floor, where oddly everything appeared business as usual. People were reacting to us, not knowing the death that was happening outside.
We stopped at the security desk where I asked one of the detectives to go to the surveillance room to get intel. At this point, we were under the assumption that Las Vegas was under a coordinated attack. I didn’t know if there were multiple shooters in the casino. The detective that I asked to go to the surveillance room had to go by himself because we were about to go up into the hotel tower where I knew we had to stop a heavily armed suspect. I remember heading to the elevators, worried that I had sent a lone detective away from my team, and hoping he wouldn’t be walking into an ambush by himself.
We made our way to the elevators, where I met up with another team. There was radio traffic that security was in a shooting on the 29th floor and that two officers found the suspect’s room on the 32nd floor. We discussed our next steps. It was decided that I would go to the 29th floor to assist security, and the other team would go support the officers outside of the suspect’s room.
We began clearing the 29th floor and found no shooter. My team made our way up to the 32nd floor, where I met up with a seasoned SWAT operator. He had responded and grabbed his own team of officers. He told me that he found a way to get to a stairwell outside of the suspect’s door at the end of the hallway on the 32nd floor. We moved across the 31st floor to a stairwell and ascended the stairs where we found that the suspect had screwed an L bracket to the door to prevent us from using this to access the hallway. The SWAT operator had a pry bar that made quick work of the L-bracket.
Once we opened the door, we were met with a glimpse of the earlier carnage that happened in this hallway. The suspect had shot multiple rounds through the door at a security guard who was checking doors on the floor. Debris littered the floor from the bullets splintering through the door. The double doors of the main suite belonging to the suspect were facing the hallway, creating an expansive fatal funnel. I remember thinking how lucky we were to have an officer with us who had experience breaching doors.
A secondary room was also involved. A room service cart was parked in front of the door, with wires protruding from the side and bottom. On top of the cart was a camera, placed to see down the hallway and the approach of any officers trying to stop the shooting. At the time, I believed the cart to be an improvised explosive device. The suspicious nature of its placement, along with the attached wires, fit what I had been trained to look for when responding to an active shooter. We had to make a decision.
It would have been unreasonable to wait for the bomb squad or other resources to mitigate the threat of the cart. We all knew what had to be done, even if it meant the cart exploding and the next team taking our place to make entry. We stepped into the hallway and hung an explosive breach on the door. I was able to see a camera taped to a plate on the cart, so I flipped it over, hopefully obstructing any view the suspect may have from inside his room.
We stepped back into the safety of the stairwell, notified the command post of our plans, and then breached the door. I remember the fire alarm sounding, the smell of gunpowder and smoke from the breach, and a cool wind coming from the room. The cart didn’t detonate. We stepped into the hallway and made entry into the room. I covered the second door with my rifle as the team filtered through the breached door. We then cleared the suite, finding the gunman deceased from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Discarded rifles, shell casings and broken glass littered the floor. The room was dark, illuminated by the tactical lights of those brave enough to make entry. We conducted a secondary breach on the connecting door and cleared that room as well.
I should have been happy that it was over. I should have been filled with a sense of pride regarding what my team did that night. All I felt was dread. The gravity of what we responded to that night still haunts me: 60 people died, 455 people were shot and over 800 people were injured. Las Vegas now had the unfortunate record of being the scene of the deadliest shooting in United States history.
Navigating the post-event trauma
What isn’t documented in the statistics above is the trauma still felt by the 22,000 concertgoers and the first responders who risked everything for their community. Our cops are hurting, our medics are hurting, and the victims are forever changed by their experience of that horrific night.
So where do we go from here?
Since Columbine, law enforcement organizations around the country have done a great job training active shooter response tactics. Officers quickly respond and know the correct tactics to move through a building or open area to neutralize the suspect. Where we are failing our officers is how we prepare them for the emotional impact of that response, both in the moment and the years after.
Fear, anxiety and feelings of uncertainty are real, yet seldom talked about. If we are not honest with our officers about the reality of police work and what it’s like to feel fear in the moment, they will struggle with managing those emotions during a critical incident. That is when we fail. We must do better for our first responders, and that starts with an honest conversation. If we don’t talk about the problem, and the trauma that officers experience every day, we will never be able to change the culture of suppressing our emotions.
Cops don’t reach out for help until they are at their breaking point. We are good at maintaining our physical health to prepare us for the dangers of the job, but we do not maintain our mental health in a similar fashion. We have a long road ahead of us, but with the right leadership having the right conversations, lasting positive change in the mental health of our cops is achievable.
We will never know how many lives were saved by other brave attendees of the concert, who risked their own lives to save complete strangers. A community came together to survive this terrible shooting, and because of that, I can say that I’m proud to be part of that community.
About the author
Joshua Bitsko is a police captain with a major metropolitan police department. He has been in law enforcement for 23 years, holding a variety of different positions. He has worked in K9, as a detective, internal affairs, and as a commander over multiple bureaus. His company, Bitsko Consulting, provides training on Police Resiliency and Critical Incident Mindset to law enforcement agencies around the country. Visit his website at www.bitskoconsulting.com.