Active shooter response considerations: Advice from the front line of the Aurora theatre shooting

The incident was not only deadly, it was also tactically eye-opening


This article is reprinted with permission from Calibre Press

By Scott Burhmaster

The mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 stands as one of the most murderous events in recent memory. Twelve people were killed and 70 were injured after tactically clad active shooter James Holmes opened fire on terrified theatergoers during a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises."

As law enforcement, EMS and fire responded to the theater, unexpected issues surfaced that every first response agency can learn from.
As law enforcement, EMS and fire responded to the theater, unexpected issues surfaced that every first response agency can learn from. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The incident was not only deadly, it was also tactically eye-opening. As law enforcement, EMS and fire responded to the theater, unexpected issues surfaced that every first response agency can learn from.

As part of this year’s Calibre Press-sponsored Patrol Tactics Conference, Aurora Police Department Commander Jad Lanigan and former Aurora SWAT Commander Mike Dailey – both key players in leading the response to this incident – shared the insider insights they’re now cleared to discuss. Their experiences and advice can help you and your partner first-response agencies be better prepared to navigate a crisis like this.

Here are a few areas of consideration they focused on:

Sound

Throughout the incident, the Batman movie kept running, which added to the chaos. The high volume of the theatre sound system on top of the sounds of gunfire, fire alarms going off and terrified people screaming compounded the cacophony and contributed to the overall confusion and sensory overload for both victims and first responders. On one of the 911 tapes, a terrified theatergoer yells through the phone, “You need to stop the movie!!!”

As would be expected, when the gunfire erupted, theater workers fled leaving no one to power down the sound/projection system.

When you’re planning for an active shooter event response, consider what large venues might be targeted and what issues like this might surface. If there are theaters in your community, would you know how to access the control rooms? Do you know where the stereo controls are in your local nightclubs? How about the lighting controls? Think about the lighting nightmare officers and escaping theatergoers needed to navigate in that dark theater with a movie flashing.

Consider every possible factor that could make your job more difficult and intensify victims’ panic and determine ahead of time how you might control them. Take the time to check out locations like this and have a plan for quickly controlling the atmosphere as best you can in a crisis.

Gas

During his attack, Holmes deployed OC canisters in the theater that required officers to don gas masks, further reducing their visibility in the smokey, low-light situation. During their presentation, Jad and Mike noted that OC and smoke are becoming increasingly common tools to use against police.

During active threat training (as well as protest management, etc.) be sure you’re training for reality. Use theatrical smoke and force officers to navigate chaotic situations while wearing gas masks. Being prepared to deal with the sensory oddities that come with wearing a mask can make a critical difference to the safety and success of your response.

And speaking of gas masks…where is yours? When’s the last time you practiced with it? It needs to be in your car, and you need to be ready to use it. “Gas can happen at any time,” Jad cautioned. Be prepared.

Command decisions

At the time of the incident, Mike was Aurora PD’s SWAT Commander. Prior to his arrival at the scene, Jad controlled incident command but Aurora’s departmental policy dictated that when the SWAT Commander arrives on scene, incident command is immediately transferred to that individual.

In this instance, Mike made a decision to have Jad remain in his command role in the interest of preserving leadership consistency and avoiding even the slightest tweak to the responding officers’ focus. “Jad was doing an excellent job and I didn’t want to distract our guys by suddenly adding a new voice to the mix,” said Mike. “There was no need. I’ve always felt it’s a bad idea to change horses in mid-stream if you don’t need to.”

Dispatchers

A couple of valuable lessons were learned regarding dispatchers’ roles in active threat response. The first dealt with threat recognition.

During their presentation, Jad and Mike played audio of one of the first 911 calls to hit the dispatch center. As the exasperated caller tries to explain what is happening you can clearly hear gunfire in the background.

Thirty-two rounds were fired during that call, which would be an immediate tip-off that a mass shooting was in progress…to those who recognize the sound of gunfire. Problem is, over the phone, the dispatcher didn't recognize those sounds as rounds being fired and the caller couldn’t be heard clearly enough to understand what she was calling to report.

Jad and Mike suggested that in an effort to ensure that your dispatchers can recognize the sound of gunfire over the phone, go to the range, call them and fire rounds in the background so they can hear what that sounds like. Do not assume everyone knows what gunfire sounds like, particularly over the phone.

The second lesson had to do with unintentionally asking leading questions. In another clip of 911 audio, a caller tells the dispatcher someone is shooting in the theater. That dispatcher can then be heard asking, “Where are they? Where did they go?” The caller then responds something to the effect of, “They’re at the exit door!”

By saying “they” the dispatcher unwittingly caused the caller to parrot her reference to multiple attackers. There was only one, but responding officers were now going to hear “they” and assume there were multiple attackers. Although you should always assume there is more than one attacker until it’s proven otherwise, ideally every piece of information that is relayed by dispatch is as accurate as possible. If the caller had been asked, “How many people are shooting?” or asked, “Tell me exactly what’s happening,” the inaccurate reference to multiple shooters may have been avoided.

Train realistically in every way

The officers who responded to this shooting were immediately blasted with an extraordinary amount of stress and forced to navigate hordes of panicked people – many who were in pain – while trying to locate the suspect. Jad and Mike shared that these officers had to cast aside terrified people who literally grabbed them and desperately pleaded for protection, including children. They had to step over bodies. They had to overlook the injured while trying to locate and engage the threat. The emotional stress of this on officers was incredible but unavoidable.

In an effort to be best prepared to deal with this kind of experience, Jad and Mike recommend adding elements to your training like people grabbing on to your responding officers and pleading for their lives, injured people screaming in pain and begging for you to help them, child victims, etc.

Imagine the most emotionally challenging scenarios you can conjure up and train for them.

[RELATED: 7 common active shooter training mistakes]

Know what it looks like – and what to do – when an officer is mentally overloading

It goes without saying the stress of this attack pushed officers to their mental and emotional limits. At one point, Jad recalled looking over at an officer who was what he called “a rock star” and noticing the officer’s eyes and face looked different. “That officer was checking out,” he said. The officer was sliding into emotional overload.

Be prepared to recognize what that looks like and have a plan for how you’re going to handle it. How are you going to ensure that the officer is safe and, if at all possible, helped back from the brink so they can continue to meet their professional responsibilities?

Another heartbreaking recollection Jad shared involved an officer who came upon the lifeless body of 6-year-old Veronica Mosher-Sullivan, the youngest of Holmes’ victims. Given the circumstances of the still uncontrolled situation, officers were forced to stay focused on locating the threat while delaying their ability to help the injured and tend to the dead.

This officer, however, simply couldn’t step over the body of this child. He picked her up and completely broke down. “He was completely gone,” Jad said. “Sobbing uncontrollably.”

Although deeply empathetic with this officer, Jad knew he needed to get that officer dialed back in, as painful as that would be. Jad’s response was to firmly order the officer to deliver this young girl to nearby EMS personnel and return to the scene.

“I can’t,” he sobbed. “I just don’t know what to do.” Devastating.

However, that officer was needed, so Jad increased the level of intensity of his demand that the officer relinquish Veronica to EMS and return to the mission of ending the threat and securing this scene. This time it worked. The officer mentally returned to duty.

When you’re discussing and planning for active threat response be sure to advise your officers that in the most severe cases, emotional breakdowns may happen. Cops are human. We all know that. The key is to quickly recognize when an officer is reaching or has reached, his or her limit and be prepared to handle that.

Communication, communication, communication

James Holmes was in custody less than 10 minutes after the shooting started but dispatch and most officers didn’t know that. Not surprisingly, radio traffic was extremely heavy and that crucial transmission from the arresting officers was buried in the noise. When you’re training for active threat response, have a plan for making sure all critical announcements are heard.

Along those lines, both Jad and Mike strongly recommend wearing form-fitting radio earpieces that facilitate your ability to hear transmissions in high-volume situations. Relying on your ability to hear a radio strapped to your lapel is not a wise idea in their experienced opinion.

Working well with the others

Interoperability between fire, EMS and police proved to be lacking in this incident, Jad and Mike explained. Several serious issues surfaced that proved extremely challenging at the scene and caused considerable contention during post-event debriefing.

Among them were extended staging distances from the scene for fire and EMS, hesitation to share equipment, clashes and decision-making delays between the different departmental command structures and an inability/unwillingness for non-command level personnel to make spontaneous, discretionary decisions that impacted the handling of the injured.

Be sure your police, fire and EMS agencies are meeting regularly to discuss exactly how things will be handled in a crisis situation like this.

Consider things like:

  • Staging: How close to the scene are fire and EMS willing to come if police tell them it is safe and necessary for them to move in? Will they be so far away, transporting the injured to them will prove unnecessarily difficult?
  • Equipment: One problem in Aurora involved an officer who approached EMS and asked for a backboard so he could deal with one of the injured. EMS initially refused, citing their need to always have their equipment in their possession and fully accounted for.
  • Command structure and decision-making: Jad and Mike explained that police officers are used to making immediate, independent decisions based on the circumstances of a rapidly changing, high-stress, high-demand situation like this. In this instance, decisions made by fire personnel were always dictated by the battalion chief who, given the magnitude of this incident, was quickly inundated with decisions that needed to be made extremely quickly.

Locate alternative entry/exit points before you need them

The parking lot at the theatre in Aurora was extremely chaotic and getting response vehicles through the front entrance was virtually impossible. Thankfully, officers were aware of alternative routes to get into the area surrounding the building quickly.

As part of your active threat response plan, make locating and utilizing alternative access/egress points at potential at-risk venues a priority. Also, be sure to share that information with other responding agencies – including fire and EMS. During the Aurora incident, that proved to be a problem.

Remember to have a way of indicating that a room has been cleared

Every one of the 16 theaters at the Aurora scene had to be cleared and officers quickly began that process. However, it became apparent that the clearing process became duplicative because there were no obvious indications that a theater had been cleared after the process had been completed.

As a result, officers cleared theaters multiple times because they didn’t know they had been cleared previously. To avoid this, consider ways to indicate a space has been cleared, like positioning a chair at the door or running tape across the entry.

Have a plan for reunification logistics

In Aurora, there were more than 1,000 people who needed to be temporarily held for interviews and their cars needed to stay in the parking lot. Aurora PD called in buses to transport them to a nearby school after which they could be reunified with their families.

That’s a lot of people coming to one location. Plan for that. Where are people heading to reconnect with their loved ones going to park? How are the lines of people going to flow? Be sure you have a plan for where and how mass reunification might work.

As with every tragic incident, looking for lessons that can help fellow officers and other first responders be better prepared and more effective is critical. The aftermath of the Aurora mass shooting was devastating for the families of those who were killed, the community of Aurora and many officers who, not long after the experience, found themselves dealing with considerable post-event trauma.

Thanks to the efforts of Jad and Mike who have completely dedicated themselves to sharing these lessons across the country, their suffering is not in vain. For that, we’re all deeply grateful.

NEXT: LE takeaways from the largest database of life histories of U.S. mass shooters


About the author

Scott Buhrmaster is the CEO of Calibre Press, one of the leading law enforcement training and information providers in the industry. Scott’s tenure began in 1989 when he originally signed on with Calibre where he was involved in the creation and marketing of the organization’s popular training courses and award-winning textbooks, videos and online publications. At the core, he was involved with the overall enhancement and expansion of the organization and he proudly continues that work today.

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