Report: Communication flaws hindered Calif. bar massacre response

Issues with interagency radio communications cost precious minutes, a new report says


By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.  — A new report examining law enforcement's response to a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks reveals significant flaws in interagency communications and the tactical approach to the 2018 attack.

Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub commissioned the 86-page report, which also detailed a 911 system that was overloaded by reports of the shooting on Nov. 7, 2018.

A memorial to the 12 victims of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting in Thousand Oaks on November 5, 2019.
A memorial to the 12 victims of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting in Thousand Oaks on November 5, 2019. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The report provides the most detailed account to date of the shooting, the worst in Ventura County history.

Ian Long, a Marine veteran, opened fire on patrons at the crowded bar around 11:20 p.m. The troubled 28-year-old, who was suspected of having post-traumatic stress disorder, fired 61 rounds, killing 11 people and shooting sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus, one of the first officers on scene, multiple times before fatally shooting himself.

The Ventura's County sheriff's dispatch center was overwhelmed with 911 calls after the shooting began. Amid the deluge, a supervisor sent an email to alert off-duty dispatchers to come in, but many had already gone to sleep. The chaos was so great that the watch commander was unable to track events in a timely fashion, and call volume led to delays in authorizing units — including SWAT — to be sent to the scene, the report shows.

Helus, a 29-year law enforcement veteran who was slated to retire the following year, rushed to the bar minutes after the initial 911 call came in. He and California Highway Patrol Officer Todd Barrett, who arrived in the parking lot about the same time, stormed through the front door at 11:25 p.m. after hearing a barrage of gunshots from inside.

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The pair were immediately ambushed by Long, who had tracked them on the bar's surveillance cameras. During a gun battle between the two lawmen and the shooter, Long struck Helus five times. But the fatal gunshot came from Barrett's weapon as he fired back at the bar after he and Helus scrambled for cover, officials said.

A minute later, Barrett — who is not identified in the Sheriff's Department's report — called "Officer down! Officer down!" to CHP dispatch. But sheriff's deputies did not hear the initial call because they were on a different radio frequency, the latest report says.

It was an additional 20 minutes before deputies could rescue Helus from outside the bar. It took more than half an hour for the Sheriff's Department to make a second entry into the building, a decision that was delayed until a SWAT captain arrived and organized an assault, according to the report.

During the 22-second gun battle between Long, Helus and Barrett, five other law enforcement officers arrived, but none "moved to position themselves in a manner that would support the officers," the report states.

The sheriff's report makes no judgment about whether any lives — including Helus' — could have been saved during the delayed response or the appropriateness of timing for the second entry into the building.

But some experts say communication failures and tactical shortcomings likely hindered the law enforcement response.

"I would be interested to know how many of those deputies had to be held back by a supervisor from going in," said Ed Obayashi, a veteran Northern California deputy and attorney who specializes in police training. "I am sure some wonder if they could have made a difference for the sergeant in those 20 minutes."

The report recommends that in the future, tactical teams be formed from the same law enforcement agency, when possible, and when multiple agencies are involved, they must have radio interoperability.

The lack of radio compatibility cost precious minutes in relaying the information to sheriff's deputies that one of their own had been shot, the report shows.

"It would take the CHP officer who made entry with Sergeant Helus verbally notifying a deputy at the scene before sheriff's deputies understood Sergeant Helus was shot," the report notes.

About four minutes later, the on-scene deputy attempted to put the word out to colleagues, but the communication was missed because a radio dispatcher was speaking over him amid the barrage of 911 calls. A second broadcast by the deputy was not acknowledged. Deputies also ignored a report from a bar patron that the sergeant was down.

As a result, the report recommends that a direct line known as a ring-down line be established between law enforcement agencies.

The panel behind the report also recommended that automated communications be used to activate units. Dispatchers were unable to keep track of information the night of the shooting because of the flood of calls and details being pushed off screens so quickly. The report also noted that the dispatch system lacked an active-shooter code.

The Sheriff's Department is seeking to purchase a new 911 dispatch system.

The report also found that future active-shooter training needs to focus on command and control of the scene. A sheriff's supervisor who arrived at Borderline after Helus and Barrett had rushed in did not have a line of sight into the club and lacked awareness of the events inside

By the time 14 uniformed officers converged outside, all of them held back and did not enter the bar. A deputy radioed to dispatch that he heard a single gunshot at 11:38 p.m. Long had put a gun under his chin and shot himself.

Law enforcement officers finally reached Helus, who had been dragged outside the bar by Barrett, at 11:46 p.m. and applied life-saving measures, but his wounds were too severe and the 54-year-old was pronounced dead at Los Robles Regional Medical Center.

The Ventura County district attorney's office said in a December 2020 report that Long was firing out the front door from behind a counter when Helus tried to stand up. Barrett was returning fire, and one of his shots struck Helus. Even after being shot, Helus retrieved his rifle and fired again at Long.

More than 30 minutes passed after the gun battle before a SWAT commander arrived and authorized the second entry into the bar. The report found that the second entry was appropriate, given that witnesses who had escaped told deputies others were trapped inside.

Although the report stated that "waiting for SWAT is rarely the preferred option," it acknowledged that deputies had to weigh the danger of going inside, given what happened to Helus, with the threat to those still in the bar.

The district attorney's report noted last year that the second entry rescued 19 people.

The sheriff's report does not explain why Long attacked the patrons in the bar, which he had frequented six times in the year before the mass shooting. But it does detail his anger against those who did not serve in the military, a growing fascination with mass killers and even his watching the movie "The Purge," in which killings are legalized for one night.

When Long began firing, a newly graduated off-duty sheriff's deputy was inside the bar with two other off-duty officers. All were armed.

The deputy, who was not identified in the latest report, told detectives that he dropped to the ground after hearing the initial shots. He spotted the shooter at a distance, near the bar, and saw a muzzle flash. During the chaos, one of his friends broke out a window, and he helped patrons escape.

Afterward, the deputy and one of the other officers readied themselves to move toward the shooter, but by then, uniformed deputies had arrived and they feared they'd be mistaken for being part of the attack so they stopped. Given the deputy's limited experience, the report found those actions appropriate.

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