In light of the two recent high-profile mass shooting incidents in Georgia and Colorado, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with three police chiefs who have managed such incidents in their jurisdictions:

-- Aurora, IL Chief Kristen Ziman, whose department responded to a workplace shooting in 2019 that resulted in the death of 5 victims and the gunman, with 6 others injured, including 5 police officers.

-- Former Aurora, CO Chief Dan Oates, who led the Aurora Police Department when it responded to the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater that resulted in 12 deaths and 70 others injured.

-- Former Virginia Beach, VA Chief Jim Cervera, who led his department when it responded to a shooting at a municipal government building in 2019 that resulted in the death of 12 victims and the gunman, with 5 others injured, including a police officer.


Aurora, IL Chief Kristen Ziman

Wexler:  Did the mass shootings in Boulder and the Atlanta area have a psychological impact on you and your department?

Chief ZimanYes, anytime a mass shooting occurs, it  triggers all of us, as do anniversary dates. I make sure that on the anniversary of our shooting, which happened in 2019, we have mental health professionals in the building. I know that our officers are all struggling, and not just the ones who were shot, but also the ones who responded to the scene or were just trying to get to the scene. So when an incident like the one in Boulder occurs, it adds another layer of emotion.

When last week’s shooting occurred, we were hosting an FBI-LEEDA class. As I was walking down to the training room to welcome the instructors and officers from all over, two officers I had never seen before came by and said, “Chief, nice to meet you. We have an active shooter event in our city.” I asked where they were from, and they said, “Boulder.”

As they were scrambling to open their computers and assess what was happening, I could see the dread on their faces, and their hopelessness of not being involved in this situation as it was unfolding. I made sure they had a flight back home and didn’t need any other help, and they headed home.  

When I got home that evening and found out that the first officer on the scene had died, I flashed back to the faces of those two officers in our class, and of course to our event. I felt that same helplessness when I heard the call go out, then heard the calls about officers being shot as I was on my way to the scene. So I knew that sense of helplessness they were feeling, and it was very emotional for me to see that.

In this time of what I’ll call villainizing the police, we have to pause and remember that we can still support our first responders who show up on the scene and run in, while also wanting reform for our police departments.

On the day of our shooting, my officers saved countless lives in that warehouse when they ran in and were shot, because the shooter turned his attention to them.

He’d already killed five people, and he was looking for more to kill. In Boulder, that first officer on the scene absolutely saved lives by running in.

Wexler: As the police chief, what was your responsibility during the situation and in the aftermath?

Chief Ziman: I’d add a third category there, which is preparation before you have a mass shooting. You have to spend time preparing and training for something that may or may not happen, because you must be prepared when it does happen. I was three years into my tenure as police chief, and we had spent those three years getting our training up to speed.

My SWAT team came to me and told me their equipment was outdated, so we had to spend some money to purchase new vests, shields, and other equipment. I was never on the tactical trajectory in my department. I was community- and project-oriented.  I had been a detective, but I was never on SWAT. So I relied on people smarter than me to tell me what we needed.

So we had the equipment, and we had the training for our patrol officers who were the first responders, and the SWAT team who were able to neutralize the threat after a 90-minute ordeal. So that preparation is phase one.

Phase two is making sure your people are doing what they are trained to do, and allowing them to do it. Our department is good at operations, and we know how to handle an incident. But we also had multiple jurisdictions show up. I have 307 sworn officers, and 250 showed up, including off-duty officers. We had people from other jurisdictions coming from all over in squad cars, and we had ambulances lining up. Everyone was asking where they were needed. So we had to manage those resources while not knowing the status of our officers who had been taken to the hospital. And the incident was still ongoing, because we had not yet located the shooter in that warehouse.

We had to rely on everyone to do everything they are charged to do, and they stepped up and went beyond that, doing things that were not in their job descriptions because they saw they had to be done. One chief from a neighboring jurisdiction directed traffic throughout the entire incident because he wanted to be useful and he saw that there was a need for traffic control.

You have to adapt during the situation to every changing scenario, because it’s fluid and it changes. There were a lot of obstacles we had to work through as it happened.

The last phase, after the scene is secure and the last piece of evidence has been collected, is that you have to take care of the human beings under your charge. For us, that is still ongoing. Two years later, our officers have physically healed from their wounds, but a lot of emotional wounds are still open. I have officers who are off and getting treatment as a result of that incident. It’s crucial to provide the care and support your officers so desperately need.

Wexler: Was there anything you wish you had done differently?

Chief Ziman: We called in FEMA to do an after-action report, because we wanted to identify anything that went wrong and prevent that behavior going forward. The good news was that, because we had done so much preparation work, there were just some small things that we had to shore up.

One, which comes up in almost every incident we have with multiple jurisdictions, was communications. We had different teams going in at different times, and we couldn’t talk to different jurisdictions who were on the same team going in. We have since shored up our communications by putting patches in our radios.

A related issue was that I didn’t know who was in the building. There were people from other jurisdictions going in, and if something happened inside, I wouldn’t have been able to account for or identify the officers inside. We now have barcodes, so when anyone goes in, we swipe the barcode on their police ID. We’re trying to get other departments and the entire state to do that as well.

We didn’t have a mechanism to communicate with officers’ families in place at the time. We’ve been instituting a system, so that the family members of our officers don’t have to turn on the news for information if they can’t get hold of their loved one.


Former Aurora, CO Chief Dan Oates

Note: Chief Oates shared his 24 takeaways about responding to active shooter incidents.

As the chief, your job is to lead. And you’re not just leading the department, because in a mass shooting incident you end up being the focal point of the entire community. Folks rely on what the police have to say about the event more than anybody else. Elected leaders and city managers are great, but people are relying on what the police chief says.

The entire community is victimized, and I told my cops again and again that we’re all victims, even those who weren’t working that night. We’ve all been traumatized, and we should all follow the guidance from the psychologists and others who we’ve provided to assist in the days and months ahead.  So the number one job is to lead the community and the cops through the investigation and through the trauma.

There are two big things I wish I had done differently. One is that I wish I had never uttered the shooter’s name. I really believe in this “no notoriety” concept. Caren and Tom Teves, who lost their son Alex in the theater shooting, are among those driving the national campaign. The way I would have handled that first press conference is to say, “Here’s a piece of paper with everything you need to know about the shooter. I challenge you in the media to either not discuss who he is or just release his name once. Here’s the information. I will not utter his name or talk about him.” I think that would have been very powerful, and we need to get there as law enforcement leaders. We have to do our best to help ensure that people won’t commit a mass shooting because they want the notoriety.

The other thing is that it’s easy to forget about the dispatchers.  In Aurora, the people in the dispatch center did not work for me, because it was a separate entity. Those folks suffered trauma from the calls that came in that evening and in the days after. People were desperately calling in for information from our dispatch center, and it didn’t occur to me until 48 hours later how traumatized they were. I wish I had done more about that in the moment.

Wexler: How do you handle notifying victims’ families?

Chief Oates: Here’s what inevitably happens in these situations. In Boulder, the police have the bodies at the crime scene and family members who can’t get to those bodies. The police have to go through a process to identify them and do forensics. They have a live defendant, so they have to do the forensic work right, because there’s going to be a prosecution.

In our case, the movie theater shooting occurred just after midnight. The next morning, we had 58 nonfatal victims scattered in nine hospitals, and had connected all the loved ones with folks who were wounded. There were two people dead at the hospitals, and we had made those notifications. And we were left with 10 families who could not find their loved ones, and 10 bodies in the theater. We met with them in a high school library, and it was the worst 90 minutes of my life. I had to explain that we have 10 people deceased in the theater and 10 families here who cannot locate their loved ones. It was almost certain that their loved ones were deceased in the theater, but I could not confirm that for several more hours. The only explanation I could give was that we had to convict the guy, and in order to do that, we had to do the forensic work correctly. Also, the shooter had wired his apartment with explosives, so we had to be certain that there weren’t explosive dangers in the theater.

Once it’s over, the handling and care of victims becomes your number one issue. And that includes all victims, including the immediate family members of victims, your own personnel, and the whole community.

Wexler: Should police chiefs go through some kind of counseling after an event like this?

Chief Oates: Yes, absolutely. We had top-shelf psychological counseling from John Nicoletti and his team under contract with us before this happened, so we had excellent psychological services. I did not order my officers to see a psychologist, but I did everything I could to encourage them. I modeled behavior by making it very clear to everyone that I was one of the first people in the door for psychological services. And I did feel a lot better after having those sessions with one of the department’s psychologists.

After this event, John Nicoletti said we had to get everybody together, and we had to do it a certain way. Eight days after the incident, we got together the 126 cops who responded that night, for four hours. I was there and the rest of the leadership team was there. The purpose was for John to speak with them and hear them out. We spoke to them, and then John Elway, who is an icon in the Denver area, spent an hour telling them they were great and taking pictures with all of them, which was wonderfully generous of him.

Then we all left, and it was just John Nicoletti, his team, and the 126 cops who responded that night. John played audio tapes of the 9-1-1 calls and radio transmissions and basically tried to hear them out, reassure them, make them understand what their victimization meant, and offer all kinds of services. I’m told it was very effective for those cops.


Former Virginia Beach, VA Chief Jim Cervera

Wexler: What are your thoughts when you see something like the situation in Atlanta or Boulder occur?

Chief Cervera: First of all, I realize all the stress that the chief is experiencing and will experience in the next couple months, when people will ask questions about why you did or didn’t do certain things.

In our case, we had additional stress because it was a city building. The suspect was a city worker, and all the individuals who were killed or seriously injured, including a police officer, were city workers.

I only said the shooter’s name once, which I may have learned from Dan. I said, “I’m going to mention his name once, and then he will always be known as ‘the suspect.’” At one point I told the media we had 12 deceased victims from the shooting, then a media person said it was really 13 dead, including the shooter. I replied, “No, we have 12 victims and a suspect.” I always made sure he was separated from the victims in the case, because that’s where the dignity and respect needed to go.

Wexler: What were some of the lessons you learned?

Chief Cervera: I want to emphasize the importance of preparation and training. People asked me when the first officers responded, and I said, “Actually, they first started responding in 2012, because that’s when we started training.” We not only trained as a police department, but also with fire and rescue. We had a very good working relationship and were able to get folks into the building to perform the rescue operation and set up casualty collection points.

There are two things I would do differently and still feel badly about. We had a captain at the family reunification center who was there the entire time and had to deliver all the notifications to all the families. Because that is such a traumatic job, we should have rotated other folks in and out. To this day, I still apologize to him for that happening.

The second one was that the incident occurred over a vast space, on three floors in a 100,000-square-foot building. Investigators didn’t want anything or anybody moved when they got to a scene, so we kept the officers who first responded on that scene for about four hours, until all the detectives had spoken to them. We made a mistake in not getting them out of that scene sooner.

Wexler: How do you get information out quickly in a responsible way?

Chief Cervera: Within an hour and a half of my arrival at the scene, we were on the TV news. We did that because everybody is out there with their cell phone cameras, and they’re on social media talking about what happened. So it’s important to put out information as soon as you can. The first thing I said was, “This is the information I have at this time. It might change as we get more information.”

You have to be careful about rumors. One reporter said he had a confirmed source saying that the shooter had been fired that morning. I asked if he could share who that source was, because we didn’t have that information. It turned out he didn’t have a confirmed source; it was just something he’d heard from somebody.

It helps to show dignity and respect toward the media.  I called on someone because they had their hand up first, and after a while, everyone was raising their hands to ask questions.

We did not mention any of the victims’ names until all the families were notified, which was the next day. They were city workers, so when we mentioned their names, we also showed their city photo. That showed that this was a person, not just a name.

Wexler: How did you help the community and your officers after the incident?

Chief Cervera: A memorial was erected, and citizens brought an unbelievable number of memorial items for those victims. Every night when I closed my office door, I went outside and stayed with citizens until about 10 p.m. They wanted to see the police officers and the chief, and they wanted to know that everything was going to be okay.

I always hope this is something that no other chief will have to go through, because it takes a lot out of you both in that moment and as you process everything.

We did a lot to make sure our officers’ psychological and physical needs were met. And that extends to all the city workers. After the building was cleaned up and sterilized, I offered to bring all the families of the victims, one at a time, into the building to spend some time where their loved one worked. All the families took us up on it, and it was heartfelt to be with them as they experienced that. Connecting with the families and the community is where I drew my strength.

Wexler: Why did you assign a member of the honor guard as a liaison to each of the families?

Chief Cervera: I took that from what we did at the Pentagon, when I responded with the FEMA Urban Search & Rescue team after the 9/11 attacks. As we would locate victims in the building, the FBI would come in to do the forensic work, and the Army Old Guard would come in and remove the victim. There was something so respectful about the way they did it.

There’s something about an honor guard cop, who has empathy for people and has done funerals, to be a liaison to the family. Some of the families have included those officers in family functions.

Wexler: What experiences did you draw on to help you work through this incident?

Chief Cervera: One was personal, when my older brother was killed in Vietnam. The rest of it was the networking with other chiefs at MCCA and PERF. I would suggest that new chiefs speak with those of us who have experienced these incidents to ask what we did and how we did it. When that happens, you have to serve in every role, including the initial response, the investigation, and everything the community needs after that. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.