Moviegoers at the Aurora Century 16 had settled into their seats with their popcorn, soda, and candy prepared for a cinematic treat. But shortly after the curtain rose at the local late night premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," their cinematic fantasy world turned into a real-life nightmare, as they realized Batman's on-screen nemesis, Bane, wasn't the only villain present in the packed theater.
Minutes after midnight, a masked gunman clad in head-to-toe ballistic gear and a long black coat strode to the front of the multiplex theater and opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 and wounding 58 people.
The killer left as quietly and as swiftly as he had entered, but he didn't go far. Police apprehended suspect James Holmes in the parking lot by his white Hyundai.
The mass murder suspect might have gotten away if not for the swift police response to the scene and the eagle-eyed police work of two responding officers who spotted him and believed something was amiss.
Though Holmes was reportedly dressed in gear that appeared similar to what a SWAT officer might don at such a scene, these responding officers noticed subtle differences in his attire that made him stand out. They approached the former Ph.D. student from the University of Colorado-Denver and quickly apprehended him.
"Eyewitness statements said Holmes could have blended in with SWAT officers," says Todd McGhee, who pioneered new security measures at Boston’s Logan Airport, post 9/11, and later co-founded Protecting the Homeland Innovations LLC in Braintree, Mass., which provides antiterrorist training to law enforcement. "Those two officers made an immediate observation that although Holmes was dressed in black and had a flak jacket on, his attire didn’t match SWAT team presence in that community."
The heroic actions of Aurora officers are to be commended, agrees Terry Nichols, assistant director of ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program) at Texas State University-San Marcos. “They didn’t wait for a perimeter to be set. They went in looking for a fight. They were able to encounter the bad guy and identify the threat within the first five to six minutes," he says.
Rob Cartner, director of training for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), credits the philosophical changes in active shooter response and the training officers have received since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., for the department's quick thinking. "Aurora's response was very swift. Everything came together in ways that departments across the nation have trained for since Columbine," he says.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates summed up officers' response in an emotional television interview where he said, "You know we train and we train and we train for active shooter situations, it's a legacy of Columbine and other shooter incidents, and as a police chief I never thought in my mind that I would really be coping with that or my cops would. And they did the other night—and they did an incredible job."
Every mass murder incident teaches law enforcement something new, according to Nichols.
The Columbine massacre underscored the need to adjust law enforcement's response to scenes of mass violence. In the wake of that infamous school shooting, authorities fashioned a response strategy where those first on the scene move in to neutralize the threat rather than secure the perimeter and wait for SWAT to arrive. The modified response tactic prompted police agencies across the nation to engage officers in ultra-realistic training regimens aimed at eliminating and minimizing casualties.
"Officers are trained that saving others' lives must come before their own lives. They understand those innocent civilians come first and their job is to go in and stop the threat," says Cartner, who notes almost every department across the United States has received some form of active shooter response training.
The Virginia Tech University mass killing hammered home the need for responding officers to add breaching capabilities to their repertoire. When Cho Seung Hui opened fire on campus, killing 32 people and wounding 25 others, he chained shut the entrances to a two-story educational facility, blocking entry by authorities. "As a result, our patrol officers are now taught how to use a shotgun to breach a door," Nichols says. "Ten to 15 years ago, that would have never been done. In fact, many SWAT teams would have been hesitant to gain entrance that way."
Nichols says the Fort Hood shooting outside of Killeen, Texas, where a single gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 others, taught authorities how to respond to an outdoor active shooter situation. "The suspect went mobile and we learned better ways to approach an exterior engagement," he says.
Response and Triage
According to Nichols, the Aurora incident drives home the need to train today's first responders in medical response and triage. Most shooting rampages end quickly; it took Cho just nine minutes to shoot 170 rounds and kill 30 people. The more prepared law enforcement can be for the shooting's aftermath, Nichols says, the less lives may be lost as a result of such a violent act. In a mass shooting there will be many victims with traumatic injuries and there will be a need to prioritize victims and administer advanced first aid.
"We have become really good at getting cops in the door fast and stopping the violence," Nichols emphasizes. Though he's quick to credit Aurora officers for their quick thinking and handling of medical emergencies at the cinema, he emphasizes, "as a profession we're not doing as well as we should at stopping the dying." He explains that in active shooter situations formally trained medical personnel often cannot be on the scene immediately to provide casualty care, thus responding officers must be educated and trained in immediate casualty care techniques to help save lives.
In ALERRT's Terrorism Response Tactics: Active Shooter Level II training, funded by grants from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and the State of Texas, officers learn self-aid, buddy-aid techniques, and basic means of treating the wounded. "We have to show law enforcement how to start giving immediate life-saving aid, how to do triage, how to set up collection points, and how to help EMS, which will be overwhelmed," he says.
Nichols predicts a day when departments will issue a tourniquet along with an officer's handgun and body armor. "Soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan go through medical training. They know how to apply tourniquets, they know how to stop massive hemorrhaging, and they are trained in triage," he says. "There is case after case where lives have been saved by this training.”
Combined, Nichols believes these recent mass murder incidents emphasize that law enforcement training must move back toward a generalist mindset. When the Texas Bell Tower shootings occurred, law enforcement didn't have the specialized teams it has today. "Patrol had to handle pretty much anything," he says. "But in the 1970s and 1980s, our profession became more specialized. We added tactical units. We added crime scene units. We added breaching specialists."
Policing today, he says, requires a return to a generalist philosophy. Today's officers must be jacks-of-all-trades. "We still have specialized units, and we still need them. But patrol officers need to be trained to go in and solve active shooter situations and need to be able to breach, which were traditionally SWAT positions. They need to be educated in DNA recovery, which was traditionally a crime tech position," he says.
Stopping the Violence
Following the Aurora shooting, gun control advocates began sifting through the wreckage to bolster their case for greater restriction on gun sales and ownership. But in reality, using gun control to prevent these tragedies may prove problematic, says Jack Levin, author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder."
"I know there’s a push to limit the availability of semi-automatic weapons but this would do little to reduce the 15,000 single-victim, gun-related homicides across the country each year," he says. "And while it would be wonderful if we could limit the availability of high-powered assault weapons and excessive amounts of ammunition to those with mental illness or criminal records, perpetrators of mass murder typically don't have an official psychiatric history nor have they had any run-ins with police."
There's also been a push to make public places more secure through the greater use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and police presence. To this outcry, Levin states, "At Aurora, there was a police presence and law enforcement was on scene within 60 to 90 seconds. But it only took 60 seconds to kill 12 people."
He adds there has been plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking about the warning signs Holmes exhibited. Holmes shared many characteristics with past perpetrators of mass killings. He was socially isolated, he was likely depressed, he had access to and training in firearms, and his world had begun to unravel.
"We all recognize these red flags," Levin says. "But we have to be very careful about applying them. You may in fact provoke the very act of violence you had intended to discourage. These warning signs should be used to spot and identify individuals before they have murderous intentions. We need to intervene when someone is troubled, long before they are troublesome. We should intervene in order to help someone who is struggling with life, not punish him or her. A good example is Cho, who had been unmercifully bullied, humiliated, and terrorized throughout middle and high school and nobody did a thing to stop it. When he became a threat and looked dangerous, he was already a senior at Virginia Tech. Then a frightened instructor tried to get him into therapy but it was too late. He was already gone."
Levin believes law enforcement should place a renewed emphasis on community policing, thereby engaging citizens in helping identify at-risk individuals. He points to the tragedies schools have successfully averted by putting a school resource officer on site. "There have been many cases where a student heard a threat in the hallway and was willing to approach this police officer with information that potentially prevented a massacre," he says.
Making police more accessible and known in the community increases the potential for citizens to report suspicious activities. Combine that with the education of frontline employees such as bus drivers, ticket takers, clerks, and concessionaires, and departments open the door to increased communication. "It would help people understand their environment and help them trust their instincts and report any anomaly to public safety immediately," Levin says. "Police officers cannot be everywhere but if we have good eyewitnesses noting any deviations in the baseline we might be able to prevent such acts."
McGhee suggests leveraging technology and increasing law enforcement use of fusion centers, information centers created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Justice Programs, to increase law enforcement information sharing.
"Most of these individuals are law-abiding citizens until they go on their rampage," he says. "In most cases they are purchasing weapons legally." But technology could be used, he says, to track people’s spending habits and raise a red flag among authorities when an individual starts purchasing large quantities of ammunition and weapons. "You then can research that person and follow that up with an investigation before they do anything," he says. "If law enforcement worked more closely with the 72 fusion centers across the country, they'd have a better way of tracking suspect individuals."
Aurora police found Holmes' apartment packed with more than 30 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and chemicals designed to enhance the fire/explosive effects of the IEDs. Herein lies another area where enhanced education and technology may have a preventative impact, says McGhee. "We have to do a better job of educating our pharmacies, our pool stores, home repair shops and beauty supply stores," he says. "All of these retail markets allow individuals to purchase things like ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel, hydrogen peroxide, and more, but you need large quantities of these materials to do anything with them. When someone purchases these things in large masses of scales, there might be a way to leverage technology to identify them. In a follow-up investigation, a police officer can learn if the individual is using them for legitimate purposes. It puts these people on their radar."
In "The Dark Knight Rises," Bane lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and sets off explosions across the city, trapping officers. He turns Gotham into an isolated city-state where any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of a bomb that will destroy it.
Though an active shooter situation may not be on this scale, it is a threat to personal security and the freedoms we hold dear, says McGhee. "The perpetrators of terror are exploiting our freedoms and our liberties and we all (the police and the entire community) need to be more vigilant and take back our security."
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.