Minute by minute: How Boulder PD handled the communication response to a mass shooting
Julie Parker speaks with PIO Dionne Waugh about the media communications surrounding a mass shooting that claimed the life of 10, including Officer Eric Talley
A critical incident can happen at any time, in any community, across the country. Sharing information about these incidents is one cog in the overall response wheel, but it’s one that cannot be overlooked. It’s crucial to effectively communicate both during and after a critical incident. Police1 is launching a new feature that dives into the communication response to some of the most significant incidents law enforcement agencies have recently faced.
Julie Parker, President of Julie Parker Communications, specializing in law enforcement media relations and social media, is spearheading this spotlight on crisis communications. In this episode, Julie interviews Dionne Waugh, Boulder Police Department Public Information Officer, about a mass shooting on March 30, 2021, at the King Sooper’s grocery store that claimed the life of 10, including Boulder Police Department Officer Eric Talley.
Some content contained below may be difficult for some readers.
Julie Parker: When did you first hear about the incident?
Dionne Waugh: Around 2:30 pm, a call came through over an app that we use for critical incidents. It was a bunch of calls.
Parker: What were the calls for?
Waugh: One was for a shooting, one was for shots fired, one was for an active shooter. I think those were the main types that were coming in.
I immediately looked at our CAD system because I thought that this can’t be right. I thought somehow maybe it was a mistake. It was training that just went out wrong. I looked and sure enough, there were all the calls coming in and where it was. I called my civilian boss because my phone was blowing up with media phone calls. She and I started coordinating what to tweet out while I got to the scene as quickly as I could.
Parker: Why was Twitter your first thought to communicate in this crisis?
Waugh: It’s the fastest and best platform to reach the most amount of people quickly. I knew it would reach the media who were all calling, texting and emailing, and I knew it would reach a lot of our population. A lot of our community is very tech-savvy and is on all different social media platforms and it was a great way to reach the most people as quickly as we could at that point.
Parker: Can you tell me what you tweeted and why?
Waugh: I think I told my boss literally just to tweet; these are the calls that are coming in, clearly there is some type of a shooting event, I said tweet something like we have a possible active shooter and tell people to avoid the area.
ALERT: Active Shooter at the King Soopers on Table Mesa. AVOID THE AREA. PIO is en-route.— Boulder Police Dept. (@boulderpolice) March 22, 2021
Media Staging Area is at the intersection of Broadway and Table Mesa. This is still an active scene. Please avoid the area.— Boulder Police Dept. (@boulderpolice) March 22, 2021
We will continue to tweet updates as we have them. If you live nearby please stay inside for now 2/2 #Bouldershooting— Boulder Police Dept. (@boulderpolice) March 22, 2021
Parker: Based on the app that gave you that information, you felt confident that pushing out the fact that there was a shooting, and a possible active shooter, would not be wrong?
Waugh: Reading the CAD notes, yes. And in addition to reading the CAD notes, it was not just that maybe the app went haywire and sent these pages out. We looked at the CAD notes and multiple calls were coming in from community members about the incident.
Parker: As you arrived at the scene, what was the first step you took?
Waugh: When I got there, they were still in the process of taking the suspect into custody, and then it was a matter of what exactly do we have inside the grocery store. We knew about our officer because of the location and because of our people who had gone in as far as they had gone in, so it was a matter of how do we manage a mass casualty incident with a line of duty death, and then how do we communicate. There were so many unknowns at that time. So many types of calls were coming in that didn’t turn out to be accurate. For example, there were other calls coming in about possibly more than one shooter, you know, so there were a bunch of things going on at once that we had to investigate before mass communication.
Once I got on scene, I was able to say, “Let’s put the media here.” They were already kind of grouped in one location. I found my Chief, found out what she knew at that point, found out who our officer was that was killed, and then we were trying to coordinate the scene because it was so large-scale.
Parker: Who were you worried about notifying?
Waugh: We knew the first person who needed to be notified was our officer’s wife. So once the scene was secure and the suspect in custody, that was the next thing. The Chief and her team went to notify the officer’s wife.
Parker: And while she is making that horrific notification, what are you doing at the scene?
Waugh: I’m doing two things. I’m working with a couple of communicators to draft an internal message to the Boulder Police Department because they are the second ones who have the right to know, and I’m also prepping a Commander who the Chief tapped to do the first press conference.
He and I were both waiting on the Chief to text him that she had notified Eric’s wife. Because we knew that had to happen first, we were both doing these things. We were trying to find the officer’s employee photo, and then trying to write something on the phone at the scene where it’s kind of chilly and people are just calling you, emailing you, texting you and coming up to you trying to talk to you, and it’s the most chaotic scene I’ve ever experienced. It’s overwhelming, but you have to focus. That would be the number one lesson I would say is to know your priorities and then focus on them.
Please avoid the area of Table Mesa & Broadway! This is still a very active scene. Do NOT broadcast on social media any tactical information you might see #BoulderShooting 1/2 pic.twitter.com/JE214XS86B— Boulder Police Dept. (@boulderpolice) March 22, 2021
Parker: Tell me more about the focus.
Waugh: The focus would be knowing your priorities. We knew the priority would be notifying the officer’s wife. And then notifying our BPD family, and then having that conversation with the rest of the world.
Parker. How are you able to do that in the chaos? Did you go to a car, did you get by yourself, how were you able to make it a priority to focus on your mission?
Waugh: One of the things that made the communication so successful for this entire incident is that we have really solid relationships with all the PIOs in this region, and two of them showed up and beat me to the scene because they were closer. They literally helped me focus. There were notifications on my phone, and they told people who were texting me, “Stop. Stop this messaging. Message me. Leave her alone while she’s doing this.” They would talk to other people coming up to me, and they would say, “Hey, she needs to focus on this. How can I help?” One of them had to put her hands on my shoulders and turn me around because where the media’s location was and where I was, a long lens could see my face, and I had to compartmentalize losing Eric. He was one of my first friends at the department, and so I had to put the feelings aside and do my job.
Parker: From the media standpoint, is there anything another PIO should take away from this because you likely started with local, but very quickly had national.
Waugh: Yes. I never kind of understood this, but now I do. Don’t answer your phone. If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer your phone. Because at that point in a critical incident, all that the media and others have are what they have heard or seen online, on the radio, that type of thing. And to get a hold of the PIO and to try to get the information, they will try and keep you on the phone and get the information because some want to be first. You need to make sure the right people know in the right order, and you don’t put out inaccurate information, because that early on, it is so fluid with things. It can change.
Parker: Was there something about your local or your national media that stands out today?
Waugh: Yes. I can tell you I worked 12 days straight on this incident, and some of the experiences I had with both national and local media I am still processing today because some of them were so unprofessional but some of them were completely professional. So, there were good and bad experiences on both ends with both local and national.
Parker: Is there anything you can point to that would help a local PIO prepare?
Waugh: For example, there was a national reporter that would come and hang out in our lobby and walk up to different employees because we all wear lanyards. And he would say, “Hey, could you let Dionne know that I’m here?” So then, different employees would come to my office and say that this reporter was waiting on me, thinking we had an appointment.
Parker: Did you fall for it?
Waugh: No, but after the third time the third employee came up to me, I went out there, met him, and let him give me his pitch. He gave me a typed letter from his affiliate because he wanted me to be the messenger to the officer’s family to say, “Hey, if you want to talk, they’ll talk to you and do whatever type of story.” And I listened to him and talked to him briefly and said, “I hear you; this is how we are doing things.” And I heard him out for a few minutes and went back to my priority for that hour or that moment.
Parker: You had two news conferences on scene that evening. Tell me about the first one.
Waugh: The first one was a little challenging for a lot of reasons. I heard from some people who watched that it was some of the most aggressive media they had ever seen. And I would believe that because we kept delaying it because there were some delays in notifying the officer’s wife. So, by the time we had the commander go out there, the media had heard a lot of information on the scanner, and one of the complicating factors with this incident was that they had seen video from a First Amendment auditor who videoed a lot of this tragedy and our squad entry, so they had a lot of information, but we had not confirmed anything for hours. So, once we put the commander out there, they had expected a lot more than they got. And it was kind of an uncomfortable press conference at first between the commander’s comments that did not confirm a lot of the information they wanted to know and then our District Attorney spoke well about what he knew at the time.
Parker: In hindsight regarding the delay, would you have done anything differently with that first news conference?
Waugh: I don’t know if we could because the officer notification had to be done the way it was done in that order. And then the information that needed to come out from the Chief level. That’s why during the second press conference all the information the Chief released was everything they wanted the first time around. It just could not be done at that time because she could not be at two places at once.
Parker: What would you say to the media or the public who’s in the position to just be sitting there waiting to receive information and impatient and wanting to know how many victims? What would you say to those viewers or news consumers?
Waugh: I know it’s hard to have patience because I struggle with having patience, but we want to make sure that we release accurate information, and the appropriate people find out in the right way that their loved one has died if that’s the case. There’s a lot going on that the public doesn’t know about that we are doing that we have to do statutorily and correctly to make sure things happen in the proper way. Public information is a huge part of that, and the city and Boulder Police are all about being transparent and releasing information, and we just want to make sure we do it correctly on all fronts. I would also want the community to know that when there is an active public safety threat, we will notify them quickly via multiple means, from reverse 911 calls to social media to knocking on doors notifications.
Parker: You had a unique way of tweeting and attributing content to specific speakers. Is that from your print news background?
Waugh: It was a team effort with my communications manager or the city director of communications. All of us had a hand in tweeting from our account. It’s one of the best things about working for this city is that the communications team is so great, and everybody came together to share the information because I was on scene, I was doing this, and I could say, “Hey, tweet this out, or do this.”
Parker: But it looked cohesive. Did one person make the call that we are going to follow this sort of style of concise, clear tone, or were there multiple people who it just all came together that way?
Waugh: I think it’s two things. They ran things by me. Everything for the most part was run through me because I was the point person for communications because I could ask the chief, the detective commander, I could ask whoever was in charge for whatever the question was, and my two civilian communication bosses had my job previously.
Parker: What about the second news conference where the Chief got naturally and understandably emotional?
Waugh: I think that’s the press conference everyone wanted where she was sadly able to confirm all of the facts that they had heard and seen for several hours before, and she was able to give them the sound bite they were looking for.
Parker: Did you tell her to do that?
Waugh: I prepped her when she came back. She came back from doing that notification which I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her. And I will say, one of the biggest things I have learned is how you talk to people, even internally, how you talk to people, with the tone of your voice, the speed and the actual words you use, are equally important as what you say. So, for example, when she came back, we circled up in one of the command buses. All of the other heads of law enforcement were in the room, too, but they said nothing. I started writing out the key points I knew she needed to about. For example, I wrote them very clearly and just simple words, literally no cursive writing, just the easiest to understand writing in case she looked down, she could see it. I had to talk to her in a way that I knew that she would hear what I had to say so that she would be able to retain everything after all that she had done that day. She reviewed it with me, took my notebook and handed me her cell phone, and said let’s go do this. She’s been in law enforcement for about 30 years, and I think she said that is the most challenging, hardest and horrible thing she has ever experienced, but she knows how to handle a press conference and how to talk. She just needed to know what to say and what had been said and what to expect, and I did tell her how the first press conference went a little bit, but I knew she would say everything they wanted to hear as far as the facts of the case at that point.
Parker: Was the coverage at that press conference fair and what was the tone of the media at it – I mean that can be very intimidating for a chief?
Waugh: it was much different than the first one. She gave them all the confirmation of the facts at that time that they were looking for. The DA spoke. And when she knew she had gotten out all of the facts she could say at that point, they both just walked away. They were done and we’d have another update tomorrow, but that gave all the journalists everything they needed for that time.
Parker: Meaning, they did take a few questions, but they had an exit plan, and they executed that plan.
Parker: What lessons would you take away from this crisis?
Waugh: Know your priorities. I took notes every day of what happened each day, so I knew coming in the next day what my priority was in the morning. My phone blew up constantly for a long time, and I just had to learn to ignore it. I got 800 emails in 24 hours that I did not get to, so know your priorities for each block of time. I would also say watch how you talk to people -- your tone, the words you use, internally and externally.
Parker: Looking back now, is there something you could have done to prevent 800 emails?
Waugh: No. And here’s one example. Several national outlets have multiple reporters who work day shift, who work night shift, who work on the east coast, who work on the west coast, also media who works around the world, so they don’t always talk to each other, and they are not, like a lot of people, they also are not that patient, so they are going to send you multiple emails regularly like every few hours and texts. They are also going to try and reach out to other people who work for the city. We had national media who emailed anyone they can find on our website who had a communications title. They emailed all of our politicians. And, to their credit, like our council members, they forwarded those emails to me and told them you are going to have to talk to the Police PIO, she is the point of contact, so that’s great. So, the media just texted me asking for information. With something this big, you just can’t give information to one. Basically, the best way to share information is to do so as a press conference or a press release jointly sent out to everyone at the same time.
Parker: How did you eventually turn all the chaos off and take care of yourself given that you had worked through a work crisis and a personal crisis in that you lost one of your friends?
Waugh: That is probably the other biggest takeaway. You need to take care of yourself before something happens because if you don’t, you won’t be able to take care of yourself during the event or after. At times people were bringing me food because I didn’t want to eat, but I meditate every day. I’ve meditated 582 days straight as of today. So, little things like that. And I have to say having people to talk to. Other communicators, there was a small group who acutely understood a mass casualty incident and a line of duty death, and I was able to lean on them for that horribly unique experience that our small group has had. And they were able to understand in ways that others were not. You need to build PIO relationships now because during an incident is not the time.
If you’re interested in learning more about a particular high-profile critical incident and how the communication surrounding that incident was handled, or to recommend a police PIO for their performance during a critical incident, please email email@example.com or fill out the form below.