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.
Officers responding to the shooting call in Aurora were met with pandemonium. Some encountered wounded victims at locations half a mile apart on the outer perimeter of the mall where the theater is located. Those arriving at the theater found an even more chaotic scene. As the siren of the fire alarm siren sounded, hundreds of people were running this way and that, some of them bleeding from gunshot wounds. Several different officers radioed in with reports of what they had found at different locations in and around the theater building. Quite understandably, the emotions of some of those officers were running high, as evidenced by their radio broadcasts. The wounded were seemingly everywhere, and none of the officers knew if the shooting had stopped, how many shooters there might be, or what their descriptions were. Given the scale of the carnage, they must have assumed they were dealing with more than one.
As the information flowed from the officers to the dispatcher, as the requests for police and rescue personnel to respond to one location and then another and another accumulated with maddening speed, as the anguished voices of the wounded filtered over the radio, this remarkable woman processed it all as calmly and efficiently as if she dealt with this sort of thing every night of her life. She communicated with her officers, with the fire department, and, as the scale of the incident became apparent, with officers from Denver and the other surrounding cities that sent people to help.
With the capture of the suspect at the back door of the theater, things became only marginally less complicated. Were there others? An officer broadcast information on a possible suspect wearing a white-and-blue plaid shirt. Where was he? Another officer passed along a report of a man running away dressed all in black and carrying a red backpack. Where had he gone? What was in the backpack? Were there explosives in the theater set to kill the first responders? No one knew the answers to these and the many other questions in the minds of those at the scene.
But even as those questions remained unanswered, there remained the task of attending to the dozens of wounded. Police and fire personnel responding to mass-casualty incidents are trained to establish a triage area where the wounded can be evaluated, with the most seriously injured taken to hospitals first. Though this was done eventually, such was the initial confusion at the scene that some officers put wounded victims in their police cars and drove them to hospitals themselves. Some even made repeated trips.
And through it all, one police dispatcher helped guide the massive response that would see hundreds of police and rescue personnel rush to the scene. I’ve been a cop in a big city for more than 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of things but never anything quite like this. From what I’ve seen it looks as though the Aurora Police Department acquitted itself well in handling this most challenging situation. In due season the tales of heroism among the officers will emerge, but when the accolades are bestowed there will be no one more deserving than that one voice on the radio. She could not have handled it better. May we soon know her name, may she get the praise and thanks she very much deserves.