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Police praised for timely response

Published February 17, 2007 12:48 am

Cops from across the nation plan to use Trolley Square operation as a case study
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Less than a week after a Bosnian teenager killed five people in an historic Salt Lake City mall, a police blitz as smooth as it was swift is being heralded across the country for saving scores of lives.

Lost in the tragedy, crime experts say, is the scale and courage of the response - and the "horrifying" thought of what might have been.



"They did a terrific job," said Patrick Kiernan, spokesman for the Salt Lake City FBI, which helped train the capital city cops within a year of the Columbine shooting. "These guys really put their lives on the line. Amazing."

Stu Smith, director of the Utah Crime Lab, predicts the damage could have been "10 times worse" without the nearly seamless operation.

"This was a communitywide effort where people realized this was a disaster," Smith said. "God help everybody if [the shooter] had another 15 or 20 minutes to have free rein inside that mall."

Instead, Sulejman Talovic had seven minutes to kill five people and wound four with a 12-gauge shotgun before four Salt Lake City officers, along with an off-duty Ogden cop, isolated and killed him inside Trolley Square.

Within moments, they were backed by more than 300 cops, firefighters and medical personnel - some came straight from home - who rushed to the mall from across the Salt Lake Valley.

All this without clogging precious radio traffic or suffering friendly fire.

"The response was phenomenal," said Salt Lake County Undersheriff Beau Babka, who called the police tactics "textbook."

"You look at it and you feel proud," he said. "They did their jobs damn well."

And already, police departments across the country plan to use the response as a case study in law enforcement confronted by a lethal threat to themselves and the people they protect.

It's hard to imagine a silver lining in the 1999 Columbine massacre or the tornado that tore through downtown Salt Lake City later that year.

But the phalanx of cops who secured the mall cite both events as tipping points that almost certainly saved lives Monday.

Post-Columbine police training focuses on quick, tactical response, where small teams "go to the gunshots" instead of plotting the perimeter and waiting until the shooting is over to go in. That strategy solidified following Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2002 Winter Olympics, when crucial cross-agency police communication was networked to a single frequency.

On Monday, the radically retooled training was put to its first major test in Utah. Clearly, the police passed.

"The use of these progressive tactics saved lives," Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller announced Friday.

Credit the cops also for their practical preparations.

Salt Lake City police Lt. Tim Doubt said one of the post-Columbine training simulations included "a shooter in the mall." The scenario, which Doubt helped conduct as a SWAT commander, took place at ZCMI Center but proved equally effective at Trolley Square.

"In these types of situations, time is not on your side - it's your enemy," Doubt said. ''They're trained to ask the question: 'Is someone dying right now?' If the answer is yes, they go in.''

Doubt said the officers performed "exactly as they were trained. I'm so proud."

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank noted some of the first four responders double as instructors for the emergency action training. Three came from the downtown police station, and they made it in three minutes.

But as the four officers searched for the shooter inside, an army of support amassed outside.

Cops from as far away as Sandy and Tooele responded, along with police from nearly every agency in between. "As soon as anybody hears something like this, dedicated officers respond," Burbank said.

In a flash, Trolley Square was surrounded by more than 200 police personnel, 100 firefighters, an host of medical experts and the state crime lab. Highway Patrol units kept the mall's perimeter practically airtight. A Department of Public Safety helicopter spotlighted the mall and the surrounding neighborhood.

"I was very proud of how it worked," said Scott Duncan, director of the DPS. "The radio system worked very well. And we didn't step on each other's toes." That feat, public safety experts say, was about learning from the past.

One key was to recognize Salt Lake City was in charge, which the other agencies did. The other was the coordinated radio communication.

"It's huge," said Salt Lake City police Det. Jeff Bedard. "It's beyond measure how valuable having people on the same radio frequency was."

At the scene, orders were issued from a mobile command unit parked east of the Hard Rock Cafe. Assistant Salt Lake City Police Chief Scott Atkinson led the response along with Deputy Fire Chief Larry Littleford and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.

"Not only do we cooperate, but we talk to each other now. In the old days, it was impossible to talk to each other," said Lt. Paul Jaroscak, county sheriff's spokesman, who praised the city's dispatcher for juggling at least 150 people.

Kiernan, the FBI spokesman, said the "active shooter response" team also performed flawlessly.

The three- or four-officer units are trained to approach in a wedge or diamond, "contrary to any kind of SWAT tactic whatsoever. It was very efficient and it worked exactly as it was supposed to."

Some serendipity also helped. Duncan noted a Highway Patrol sergeant happened to be on a nearby task force and was one of the first ones there. "He was in the parking lot getting ready to go in" when the city SWAT officers arrived, Duncan said.

Had the agencies used the old tactics, or got bogged down in bureaucracy, Smith said, Talovic could "easily" have had 20 more minutes to fire, reload, and fire again.

Once the officers can be debriefed, Salt Lake City police plan to submit details of the event to national trade publications.

In the meantime, officials are hearing from police departments in Los Angeles, in Texas and elsewhere across the country.

"I'm getting phone calls from all over," said Lt. Rick Findlay, who helped train the force. "People feel there are some lessons to be learned from our response and that's flattering."

djensen@sltrib.com

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* RUSS RIZZO contributed to this story.

New tactics: Cops change tactics after the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Instead of deliberate SWAT response, small teams of three to four were trained to ''go to the gunshots.''

Training: Within a year, Salt Lake City force is trained by Los Angeles cops and the FBI. SLPD holds a series of emergency action simulations, including a mall shooting at ZCMI Center.

Communication: Police put a premium on radio communication after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. By the 2002 Winter Games, all Utah agencies were able to share the same signal.

A test: New tactics first used on major scale Monday. More than 300 emergency personnel respond in a massive - but swift - operation hailed for its efficiency. Officials say effort certainly saved lives.

 

 

 

 

 

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