During the recent events in Aurora, Colo., there were countless acts of selflessness as movie patrons used their bodies to shield and protect victims from the gunman's bullets. There were also stories of the brave Aurora police officers, Arapahoe sheriff deputies, and other first responders, who stormed into the Century 16 Theater and saved people's lives.
The massacre in Aurora, which 12 dead and 58 wounded, is our nation's worst mass murder since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Thirteen years ago, however, local law enforcement handled the Columbine tragedy in an entirely different manner. When police responded to the scene in Columbine, they initially exchanged gunfire with the two gunmen. They then stopped firing to wait for the assembly of an elite response team. It took 45 minutes for that elite team to be formed, and during that time, the gunmen killed 10 of the 13 people who died that day.
After the Columbine gunmen committed suicide, the elite response team took several hours to secure the scene. During those long hours, a wounded teacher bled to death while students held T-shirts over his wounds. Unfortunately, law enforcement's response to Columbine precisely followed what were the established protocols at that time.
In Aurora, the police department arrived approximately 90 seconds after receiving 911 calls of the shooting around 12:39 a.m. Courageous officers rushed into the building, instructing people to leave the theater. One eyewitness described police officers carrying victims out of the mayhem. Several officers transported severely wounded victims to area hospitals in their patrol cars.
Still other police officers arriving on the scene quickly arrested the gunman near his car behind the theater, seizing a gas mask, rifle and a handgun, among other weapons. These actions by the police likely prevented the gunman from firing additional shots, which would have made it impossible for the wounded to get help quickly. The brave and rapid response of local law enforcement proved invaluable during this tragedy.
Law enforcement personnel also displayed acute and decisive judgment during their search of the assailant's apartment, deftly countering the booby traps that were left, presumably in an effort to kill or injure officers entering the home. The assailant's apartment was rigged with more than 30 grenades, which were wired to a control box in the kitchen. Had the grenades exploded, much of the apartment building would have been engulfed in flames, injuring and killing even more people.
Today, a hand written note at a make shift memorial in Aurora reads: "Real Heroes Wear Badges, Not Capes." This is a message that we need to convey to our children, many of whom idolize cartoon superheroes, like the character of Batman. There are over 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States today. These are the men and women who protect our children.
As a nation, we must also address the staggering fact that one law enforcement officer is killed on the streets of our nation every 53 hours. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund further explains that a total of 53,469 assaults have also been made against law enforcement each year for the past decade, resulting in 15,833 injuries.
On July 20, 2012, we witnessed great pain and despair in Aurora, Colo. But we witnessed great bravery and courage, too.
Joseph Summerill is general counsel for the Major County Sheriffs' Association.