Mission Focus: Quick Thoughts on Colorado Theater Shooting

An Aurora Police Department detective takes a witness statement following a shooting Friday morning July 20, 2012. Remember that suspects sometimes try and blend with a fleeing crowd. Eye-witness descriptions can be critical but don’t over rely on unique items like a bright red hat because these can easily be changed or discarded. (AP Photo/Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

Shortly after midnight, a lone gunman entered the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, CO, about ten miles outside of Denver. The theater was premiering, Batman – The Dark Knight Rises, and the building was crowded. The suspect threw a smoke or gas canister and then started shooting. At least twelve were killed and scores more were wounded.  The death toll may go higher as some victims were critical. Responding officers arrested a suspect by the theater and found a gas mask, handgun and rifle in his vehicle.

It is difficult to imagine a more challenging incident than this: mass casualty with gunfire from one or more suspects, gas or smoke, possible explosive devices and hundreds of victims fleeing the scene from a multiplex theater. Initial indications are that the response in this incident, despite the chaos and the timing (0030), was exemplary.
With this type of incident or variations of it, here are some priority considerations:

Remember the perimeter and establish at least two as quickly as possible. Resources will be limited but you have to do the best you can. As calloused as it sounds, remember that the job of the police is to find and contain the threat. Treating the wounded is the responsibility of EMS personnel.

A common mistake with these situations is that cops rush to the heart of the incident and forget that this type of event rapidly evolves outward.  This is why a secondary perimeter is key. To the degree you can, establish the biggest perimeter possible. Identify and sequester key witnesses.  Yes, resources will be limited but do the best you can.

Invoke WIN – What’s Important Now? – as the scene evolves. This powerful approach can keep you focused on the priorities and minimize the chance of distraction. Smart supervisor will be thinking WIN2 – What’s Important Next? Example: in this case, as soon as the suspect was identified, police went to his apartment and evacuated the complex. This was smart and means someone was thinking in terms of keeping things from getting worse.

Remember that suspects sometimes try and blend with a fleeing crowd. Eye-witness descriptions can be critical but don’t over rely on unique items like a bright red hat because these can easily be changed or discarded.  In this case, the killer was located by responding officers. Kudos to the sharp-eyed officer(s) who made this happen.

What about your equipment? Armor should be a given. It works but only if you wear it. Patrol rifles should be available and fully operational. You do regularly check your equipment, right? What about gas masks? Do you have one? Do you know where it is? Have you checked the date on the filter? This is not the time to have essential equipment secured in a locker back at the station.

Some investigative thoughts:

If you have license plate reader technology, use it! Get the LPR vehicle(s) to the scene and start making circles around the scene evolving outward. This may provide critical information later as to whether a vehicle was at the scene.

As soon as possible, identify potential video resources and lock them down. For instance, the suspect may have stopped at a gas station two blocks from the scene and begun his preparation. Many of these businesses run their surveillance video on a loop and critical evidence can be lost if not quickly identified. This is a great job for non-essential personnel to take on.

Keep re-evaluating what you know and what the new information means. Again, continually think WIN – What’s Important Now? Priorities can change and you need to be flexible.

Finally, are you mentally prepared? Have you walked through critical incident response in your mind? Smart cops are continually thinking, “What would I do if . . .?”

Doing this means you’ve already got a basic plan when things go bad.


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