The city of Aurora, Colorado paid to have a third-party operations-analysis shop, much like the one that we occasionally work for, review their response to the Century 16 theater shooting.
A redacted copy of that report has been posted by the state courts, thanks to a public-records lawsuit. And we have some interesting takeaways from that report. First, our link to the .pdf on the Colorado website: http://www.courts.state.co.us/Media/Opinion_Docs/14CV31595%20After%20Action%20Review%20Report%20Redacted.pdf
And here’s a copy from our servers, in case that one goes paws-up: Aurora After Action Review Report Redacted.pdf
And two things leap out from that report, which lacks an Executive Summary:
- The police response was pretty damned good;
- The police response was entirely insufficient.
The Police Response Was Outstanding
Unlike the reportedly leisurely response of the Newtown, Connecticut PD to their shooting nightmare (20+ minutes), the Aurora cops rode to the sound of the guns with spurs on. Public Safety Dispatch was quickly overwhelmed with calls; seven calls were received in one minute before a patrol unit was dispatched. The first patrol car, Cruiser 11, was onsite in under two minutes from the inital 911 call (51 seconds from the call going out over the radio); 6 cars were there in under three, and 14 units by the time the four-minute bell rang. (When it was clearly a mass-response event, the responding officers did not report in on air, to keep the channel clear; their cruisers were tracked with onboard GPS).
The response was as skilled as it was timely. The officers who responded had recent and recurrent active shooter training, and they were tasked to respond, identify and neutralize the active shooter without delay and without waiting for SWAT or other specialized units. Those units were called out, and quickly responded, but the shooter was already in custody. The exact time he was apprehended is unclear — with his trial still pending, that part of the report is redacted — but it appears clear that he ceased firing on the arrival of police, if not before, and attempted to escape by stealth. He was unsuccessful.
The first reported contact of police with a victim came when patrolman 514 called in at 3:02 elapsed (since the initial 911 call). The next reported victim contact was at 4:10 elapsed.
The department is well organized and manned; there are more cops per capita than in typical Western US cities. They conduct frequent exercises alone and with other agencies; they do an exercise in the schools every year. The fire department is similarly ahead of the national curve, with all FFs being EMTs and new hires required to become EMT-Ps for almost a decade now. Prior to the incident, the FD had participated in many active shooter training exercises with the police.
And the circumstances favored a rapid response: unlike in Connecticut, where the incident happened during a period of heavy traffic, the Aurora crime took place after midnight, with empty roads, a mere mile by road from the nearest police station (a half mile directly). The incident happened right at shift change, so 126 officers were on duty. As noted above, they started responding right away, and kept responding (an hour later, there were over 50 cars on scene from Aurora alone, despite many of the initial responders having used their cars to evacuate wounded. (Indeed, the cars would cause a logjam interfering with ambulance access, common in such incidents).
There were some other lucky breaks. When firefighters were held back because of uncertainty about the security situation, victims were triaged and, in some cases, treated, by a police paramedic, muting the consequences of holding the fire paramedics back. There were no less than six trauma centers close by; no victim bled out waiting for treatment.
While the report finds some room for improvement in police and fire responses, and makes suggestions for improvements (some of which have already been made), the Aurora public safety officials have much justfication for pride. Thanks to the efforts of first responders, the shooter was stopped, and every victim with survivable wounds did survive.
That’s about as good as a police and fire response can ever hope to do.
…But it was Still Too Late
By the time that first cop car was on the scene, 82 people had been injured, 12 of them fatally. 10 of the 12 were clearly DRT and were pronounced at the scene; two were transported and pronounced, one on arrival and one shortly thereafter. An amazing 58 had received survivable gunshot wounds. (In combat, we note that 1:4 is a typical ratio of killed:wounded, so this is not far off the median). In addition to the 70 shooting victims, 12 more people had been injured, some seriously, in the panicked escape from the theater.
The criminal did all this in two minutes. Of which less than one minute elapsed between Dispatch putting the call out and Unit 11 calling in at the scene of the crime. Now, the sections of the report dealing with the criminal’s actions have been redacted (as we mentioned, because his trial has yet to begin), but these conclusions from the report pretty much brings the limitations of police response into stark relief:
Members of the Aurora Police Department followed the active shooter strategy, acting bravely and professionally as they encountered an unknown shooting situation with multiple seriously injured victims. Police units arrived very quickly, less than 3 minutes from the first 911 call. XXXXXXXXXXXX. All victims with survivable injuries were saved. (p. 13)
Overall, there probably could not have been much better deployment and results than the Aurora police achieved. They deployed on the fly, with self-deployments initially, then gradually implementing more formal incident command. The one large exception to the success was the inadequate relationship with fire department command during the key part of the incident, but that did not affect the outcome—at least not this time. (p.27)
This incident gives additional evidence that rapid response to active shooters is imperative; XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Every minute counts in reporting and responding to an incident. (p.27)
(X’s are redactions). One way in which rapid action worked was the transport of several critically injured patients. While the first patient was not moved by an ambulance until over 15 minutes had passed, several had been hauled in Aurora PD patrol cars, and one actually ran to Aurora Hospital. The use of patrol cars to transport casualties was never planned, exercised or even permitted; instead, it was a brilliant improvisation by the officers at the scene that day.
What Would Help?
Since a cop got there less than a minute after the call, and the shooter desisted on that cop’s arrival, if not before, it’s pretty clear that you can’t do anything to improve the results of police response, unless you plan to station a cop in every theater. So your choices come down to accepting such massacres1, or hardening the target. Conventional methods of target hardening include armed guards or metal detectors; an unconventional method would be to allow patrons to be armed2.
The report punts on a gun recommendation, but makes some rather laughable recommendations for victims trapped in a similar situation:
Inform the public on appropriate measures if caught in a shooting situation. Nationally, thousands of people have been exposed each year to small- and large-scale shooting incidents. There are likely to be more. The key guidance to offer is:
- Flee if you can.
- If not possible, hide or shelter.
- If neither is possible, consider attacking XXXXXXX, preferably in concert with others, throwing anything handy to distract or injure him.
The X’s represent a redaction, again. While it is better to counterattack with an improvised weapon, “anything handy,” than to cringe helplessly in expectation of imminent death, it seems self-evident that a counterattack with deadly force would be preferable.
Other recommendations were remarkable in their simplicity for the relative benefit they would convey. One example is simply to have all the police cruisers in the fleet keyed alike, or to have master keys available to supervisors. This would have solved the gridlock caused by dozens of cars left standing by responding officers.
1. There is some belief that superior policies towards the mentally ill might prevent such massacres, but it’s extremely hard to define a policy that would have disabled the criminal in this case, without creating a civil rights monster. While he was clearly a disturbed individual, the ability of psychiatrists or psychologists to predict violent behavior based on his past conduct is extremely limited.
2. The theater chain that owned this property, Century, has a “no-weapons for licensed carriers,” or Victim Disarmament Zone, policy, on political grounds; and thereby assumes responsibility for patrons’ safety, and welcomes strict and unlimited financial liability for violent crimes on its property. The shooter bypassed several other theaters that were closer to his apartment, larger, or otherwise more suitable, to go to the one that was placarded against non-criminals carrying guns.