She was nowhere near the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado, early Friday morning. She didn’t confront the killer or stanch any wounds or drive any of the injured to the hospital. She didn’t wade through the wave of panicked, fleeing people to enter that gas-filled auditorium and bring order to the chaos. She did none of these things, yet she should be counted among the heroes of that horrible night. She was the calm voice when one was most needed.
I’ve searched the news stories about the shooting but haven’t discovered her name, so I hope she’ll forgive me for referring to her simply as the police dispatcher. It was at 12:39 a.m. local time when she put out the first call for police to respond to the theater. “Three-fifteen and Three-fourteen,” she said, addressing the two units she was dispatching, “for a shooting at Century Theaters, 14300 East Alameda. They say somebody’s shooting in the auditorium.” She soon came back on the air to provide more information that had come in over the telephone. “There is at least one person that’s been shot but they’re saying there’s hundreds of people just running around.” As we now know, that didn’t begin to describe what was happening.
Among cities of its size – about 325,000 people live there – Aurora is one of the safest. The FBI reports that in 2010 there were but 1,443 violent crimes reported to police there, including 23 criminal homicides. Shootings, though not unheard of, are rare in Aurora, and indeed the police radio traffic, as can be heard here, was light and routine in the minutes before the first shot was fired at the theater. Given what was to follow, the dispatcher might be forgiven for losing her composure.
She never did, not for a moment.
Every cop knows the frustration of having a dispatcher on the frequency who is not quite up to the task. The slightest delay in processing a request for assistance or information on a license plate or the details of a suspect’s description will have a cop grinding his teeth and pounding on the dashboard of his patrol car. It is not a job that just anyone can handle. I was a young rookie cop when my training officer took me to the LAPD communications center, then located in the old Parker Center headquarters building in downtown Los Angeles. It was important for me, he said, to see how difficult a dispatcher’s job was. It hasn’t gotten any easier, even as the technology has advanced with computers replacing the handwritten cards that once were used to log radio calls and track the status of police units. But one thing in the dispatcher’s job has remained constant even as the tools have changed: the need to remain calm while dealing with people who are not.