Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Orlando Police officers and law enforcement agencies who responded to the massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse last year followed protocol, but more training is needed on future responses to potential terror strikes and coordinating communication, according to a new report
The nearly 200-page review was commissioned by the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
and the Police Foundation
. The report concluded OPD responded to the Pulse mass shooting in a "manner consistent with national best practices and under extremely volatile and difficult circumstances."
"The decisions made and actions taken by the men and women of the Orlando Police Department and Orlando’s other law enforcement agencies embody the bravery, strength, and professionalism of our nation’s law enforcement and public safety first responders as well as the strength of the Orlando community," the review states.
But the report did include critiques, and in some cases, left questions unresolved.
While the research team was able to interview OPD personnel and had access to 911 calls from the night of the attack for their report, they faced restrictions with other material because of ongoing criminal investigations. Researchers didn't get to see "FBI reports, intelligence, ballistics reports, evidence, crime-scene documentation, or classified information related to the suspect or potential law enforcement friendly fire during the incident," the report says. The team tried to reach out to Pulse survivors, but were only able to interview one person.
Around 2 a.m. on June 12, 2016, as bartenders made their last call, Omar Mateen parked his rental car at the tint shop next to Pulse on Orange Avenue. Two minutes later, he walked into Pulse with a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic weapon and 9 mm handgun and started shooting into the crowd of 300 people who were in the gay club for "Latin Night." An off-duty Orlando Police officer working an extra shift at Pulse saw Mateen and called for help on the police radio. The report says OPD estimated from listening to 911 calls that Mateen fired about 200 rounds in less than five minutes and only stopped to reload. When backup officers arrived minutes later, they broke into two groups and entered through two different doors, trying to find the gunman and rescue people. The officers managed to corner Mateen in one of Pulse's bathrooms, along with victims who were severely injured.
"The initial tactical response was consistent with the OPD’s active shooter training and recognized promising practices," the report says. "However, as the incident became more complex and prolonged, transitioning from a barricaded suspect with hostages to an act of terrorism, the OPD’s operational tactics and strategies were challenged by the increasing threat posed by the suspect’s claim of improvised explosive devices inside the club and in vehicles surrounding the club."
Outside, officers from around the county deployed to Pulse to help their fellow first responders. While their response in those crucial first minutes helped save innocent lives, at some point, it became too much – within the first three hours of the standoff at Pulse, 300 local officers had self-deployed onto the scene, some even stationing around the club's perimeter with patrol rifles. Immediate first responders from Orlando told researchers they "had never seen so many guns pointed at them and they questioned the necessity of having so many heavily armed officers in unnecessary positions when they could have been performing other critical functions." The report concluded that the move may have left the city and surrounding areas unprepared in the event of a second attack.
Inside the bathrooms, Mateen pledged his allegiance to ISIS to 911 dispatchers and talked multiple times on the phone with OPD's hostage negotiators as officers outside assessed the club's interior. Some critics have questioned why OPD did not engage the gunman in the bathroom sooner while he reportedly wasn't shooting. Officers told the report's researchers they determined it was "too risky" to conduct a direct assault because they didn't know exactly where Mateen or the hostages were located, and they had poor visibility in the dark, narrow hallway leading to the bathroom.
"OPD and other law enforcement agencies should develop specific negotiation protocols recognizing that an immediate and overwhelming tactical assault may be the safest and most effective response to resolve a hostage incident during a terrorist attack," the report said.
The review concluded the final assault on the club around 5 a.m. to rescue hostages by breaching the bathroom's outside wall with an armored car was an "appropriate tactical decision." Researchers, though, did critique the lack of communication surrounding the break – the command center didn't advise officers outside of the assault team that the breach was happening, leading to some surprise. As officers were widening the holes created by the armored vehicle, Mateen began shooting at them. They returned fire, and by 5:15 a.m., Mateen was dead.
Mostly, the report praised the communication between law enforcement departments, the city and outside state and federal agencies – but it did highlight a disconnect between OPD and the Orlando Fire Department that night. At first, OFD established their own incident command post, which the review says "negatively impacted information and resource sharing, coordination, and overall situational awareness." Because of a failing, outdated paging system, the OFD chief wasn't notified about the Pulse attack until about 15 minutes before Mateen was killed.
In conclusion, the report concluded neighborhood patrol officers are increasingly the first to respond to terror attacks and must be "properly trained and equipped to identify the threat, immediately engage the perpetrator(s), extricate and render aid to victims, assume incident command and request appropriate public safety resources."
"Orlando police officers and their counterparts entered an overwhelming scene of human suffering, and with laser-like focus they stopped the killing and saved the lives of innocent victims in Pulse," the report says. "Well-defined, well-developed, and practiced protocols equipped responding officers to perform effectively during this tragic event."
Read the full report here