By Major Max Geron, Dallas Police Department
“Hey man this is Reuben. I don’t know if you heard but there’s a citywide assist and reports of officers down at the demonstration. I’ve got some guys and we’re headed that way and I just wanted you to know in case you hadn’t heard.”
That was my first indication that something had gone horribly wrong. I glanced at social media and immediately saw throngs of people scattering from the anti-police brutality protests going on in downtown Dallas. I knew it was bad. They reported one officer having been evac’d to the hospital in a squad car – you know it’s bad when cops are evacuating other cops in squad cars and not waiting for ambulances.
I started throwing on my uniform and got a call from my ex-wife asking if I was ok because she was getting calls from relatives asking about what was going on in Dallas with officers being shot. I told her I was fine and on my way into work because downtown was chaos. I told her to love on our kids for me.
I jumped on the road, turned on the lights and siren and went screaming toward downtown. I listened to the radio as officers tried to determine where in parking lot off Lamar St. the shooter or shooters might be – frantically searching, trying to find out where he, she, they could be. My job then was not to put my car or someone else’s car into the ditch as I worked to get there as quickly and safely as I could. The adrenaline was coursing.
I called my boss and told him I was on my way and asked where he needed me to go. He told me to report to the command post at the convention center. I got close and saw a crowd of officers and stopped to ask them where the field command post for the demonstration was. They weren’t sure although it turned out it was about a half a block away. I got my bearings and found it in the confusion.
I climbed into the mobile command post and saw a friend of mine (a fellow Major) working hard coordinating the resources that were flooding into downtown. We talked briefly and he said, if you’ve got this I’m headed to the tactical command post near El Centro community college – where SWAT was coordinating their operations, at that time working to locate the shooter(s). Also in the command post were representatives of Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police, Dallas Sheriff’s Office and some federal partners. It was crowded to say the least.
I took over there and would be there for the next 12 hours. We had a good crew and worked to get a sense of how many officers we had and where they were. It became apparent that there were lots of officers running around with no particular assignment trying to find the suspects. I spoke to my counterpart at the SWAT command post and decided to pull all unassigned officers to the south side of City Hall and get them all accounted for – that helped.
I blinked and it was already 2 hours into the operation. I posted a quick “I’m working and I’m safe,” message to Facebook because my text and messenger apps were lighting up with inquiries from across the country from friends and relatives watching the horror unfold on television and social media. I began to post information to Twitter to let the community know that we were working hard to protect them and let know what was going on.
We then heard reports of someone putting things into a car that fled the scene. The helicopter spotted the vehicle and the proverbial “chase was on” and it was directed onto another radio channel because communications were flooded on the channel running the original demonstration.
Eventually we got word that the vehicle was stopped and officers were dealing with the occupants. Then we focused on multiple tasks. There was the need to transport a huge number of witnesses to be transported to headquarters and interviewed. There was also the challenge of sorting out witnesses from potential suspects. Texas is an open carry state and there were a number of armed demonstrators taking part. There was confusion on the radio about the description of the suspects and whether or not one or more was in custody.
Then there was the task to account for every officer who was on the original operations plan (ops plan). I tasked a couple of officers to start making contact with each supervisor who in turn should account for each of their assigned officers.
And then the casualty reports started to roll in. I don’t recall if it was via officers or the media but we first learned that two of our officers were dead. I heard Mike Smith’s name and was crushed. I had known mike for 15 years or so. I always knew him to be soft spoken, thoughtful and intelligent. I always enjoyed running into Mike and shuddered at the thought of him no longer with us. Then word of a third Dallas officer dead came in and the confirmation of one deceased DART officer.
It was all pretty overwhelming and yet we didn’t have the luxury of time to consider the emotional component and stayed focused on the downtown operations. Media began reporting of 2 deaths then 3 deaths and then 4 deaths and finally we learned that Patrizio Zamaripa and Michael Kroll – both Dallas police officers had also died.
Attention eventually focused on the community college where one of the suspects had been spotted. SWAT and others were already searching floor to floor. There was much apprehension about blue on blue confrontation and lots of communication trying to ascertain whether lights seen on one floor were police or suspect or frightened students.
To compound issues a continuation of the demonstration sprung up in front of a convenience store and the crowd there quickly grew from 30-50 to 150-200 angry demonstrators shouting things at assembled officers who stood in a skirmish line between the store and demonstrators. We worked to funnel additional resources there as well as divert some DART busses to provide transportation away for those who needed it.
Some got on and some stayed to hurl insults at officers. One officer later told me “I tried to tell them that we were there to protect them and the guy said, ‘Protect us hell! You guys are the targets tonight!’” and started laughing.
No matter what happened we all still had jobs to do and I saw Dallas officers all over the place continuing to do their jobs. Footage was played and replayed showing officers protecting journalists and demonstrators and downed officers.
Then came the cell phone footage. The shooter could be seen in front of El Centro college with its distinctive concrete pillars on Lamar St. He was moving and shooting – ducking behind and re-emerging from the pillars shooting at officers. Finally you could see one officer working to engage the shooter move behind one of the pillars. However this time, the shooter was advancing on the officer but the officer didn’t know it. The officer moved to the right and looked down the right side of the pillar just as the shooter rounded the left side of the pillar and from a couple of feet away, shot the officer with an assault rifle. Then he stood over him and executed him by shooting him in the head.
All of us in the command post visibly recoiled at that sight. It was the stuff of flash picture memories – the kind you have when you can tell someone where you were when men landed on the moon, when the you learned that the Challenger space craft exploded or any other incredibly significant event in your life occurs. In that instant it was indelibly burned into our brains.
Back to work.
The suspect was finally cornered on the 2ndfloor of El Centro and there were shots fired. Negotiators continued to work to try and get him into custody but that was not to be. He refused and so SWAT developed a plan to resolve the situation – it would eventually involve a robot and some C-4 plastic explosives. It worked.
We were constantly busy in the command post accounting for officers directing them from one location to another and making sure we had accounted for the officers. Generally in an officer-involved shooting situation, officers stay right there at the scene and wait for Special Investigation Unit personnel to arrive and conduct the investigation. In this instance we wanted the officers out of harm’s way so we directed them to leave the scene and notify SIU of their location and level of involvement in the shooting so that they could make the determination as to whether or not the officer had to report immediately and provide a statement or could wait.
Members of Sgt. Smith’s squad were now without a sergeant and were understandably reported to be struggling with the situation around his death. We needed to get them accounted for and get them to help. We had finally gotten down to one or two missing officers that we couldn’t raise on the radio and were able to have someone either put eyes on them or speak to them in person to make sure they were ok and that we didn’t have an officer out somewhere hurt or dying with no one coming to help him.
Sometime after that we got word that Lorne Ahrens was the fourth injured Dallas officer and that he had flat-lined after coming out of surgery and that he likely wasn’t going to make it. That was devastating because I knew Lorne and his wife Katrina. They used to go to game nights hosted by some friends and he had always been friendly and had a smile on his face. His wife had worked for me in the Sex Assaults unit when I was over Crimes Against Persons. I had no idea what she was going through but knew it was devastating.
There were several in the command post who were crushed to learn that Lorne had indeed succumbed to his injuries. Upon learning Lorne was among those killed, we all knew we had watched his death shortly before. He was the officer behind the pillar who was ambushed and shot before he could react. He was one trying to protect our freedom to peaceably assemble and was summarily executed for doing so.
Once the suspect at El Centro was dealt with things transitioned to an investigatory focused follow up. Explosives sweeps were conducted in the area of the shooting and throughout El Centro. Then there was the house in Mesquite related to the suspect that had to be searched. We worked to cull as many unnecessary officers while still maintaining a sufficient number to secure the massive crime scene.
We began swapping out as many evening shift officers with deep nights’ officers as we could, being sure to direct all who were released, to check out with SIU to make sure their statements weren’t needed that morning.
And then around 9am my relief came and I was finally able to leave. Like others, I’d been up for about 27 hours at that point.
Over the course of the operation I received hundreds of messages, tweets and emails of inquiry, encouragement and support. They all helped. I maintain an active Twitter feed and have worked in the Public Information Officer (PIO) role on more than one occasion but I no longer serve in that function. Some still think I serve that role so there were plenty of inquiries that I redirected to both our city’s PIO director and our department PIO supervisor. I teach courses on crisis communications and effective social media use during critical incidents. It’s important and I felt the support from the community and from friends during this crisis. I was thankful.
As I got into my car I glanced again at the messages and immediately the tears hit me but I fought them back. For a veteran police officer, it can be unnerving to feel like you’re not completely in control of your emotions – I didn’t like it but intellectually I knew at some point I would need to grieve. I just didn’t want to do it sitting in my car at the scene before I had to drive home.
I drove home and saw the dinner plate and glass where I had eaten dinner the night before, expecting to watch some TV and then go to bed. I remembered then how that had all been suddenly interrupted. I had hoped to get in a bike ride that morning as part of my training for the Hotter than Hell rally at the end of August. That wasn’t going to happen so instead I covered my eyes from the light and tried to sleep. I kept seeing the image of Lorne being shot before I fell asleep for 3 hours.
I got up, showered and got dressed for work again. I missed my children and thought about stopping at the daycare to see them before I went to work just to hug them and kiss them. I opted to continue to work because I didn’t want to disturb their routine and then have to explain that I wasn’t there to pick them up, but just to see them for a couple of minutes and then deal with their sadness. I wasn’t sure what the right thing to do was so I just chose to go to work.
I spoke with my Division Commander who was leaving to attend the FBI National Academy that weekend but who, after seeing the events unfold, felt compelled to come into work on Friday. We made the 3rd watch detail and I talked about PTSD and how in 1996 my partner and I fought a prostitute for control of my gun as she tried to kill us.
I talked to them about overwhelming feelings of guilt at “allowing” her an opportunity to take my gun, for having put our lives in danger. I talked of breaking down in the hospital afterward because I felt terrible. I talked of speaking to the psychologist and how that didn’t help at all. Then I talked about how a veteran officer stopped me in my tracks a few days after that 1996 incident and said “It sucks doesn’t it?” And I said, “What?” And he replied, “Having your gun taken from you and fighting to get it back. It sucks doesn’t it?” My shocked response was, “Yeah, it really does.”
He then launched into a story of his own how a woman on a disturbance call had taken his once during a domestic dispute call. Here was a man, an officer who I respected as a cop’s cop – as an incredibly smart street cop telling me that what had happened to me, had happened to him. It was as if someone had opened my soul, removed the weight of guilt and left nothing but understanding and a sense of well-being. I didn’t have to keep beating myself up.
I shared that story with the detail because more than anything, I couldn’t stand the thought of an officer having witnessed the horror of Thursday night and feeling guilty for what they did or didn’t do or for the feelings of loss we were all experiencing and not getting help that they might desperately need. I shared that story because I needed to for me. That’s how I saw my role as a leader trying to help my officers get through this terrible situation.
It occurred to me today that I’m cycling (and not on a bike) between my feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and confusion with a dose of numbness in there. I haven’t allowed myself to cry yet. I know I need to at some point but I haven’t been able to “schedule it”. I expect that the funeral will be something of a catalyst but even then, there’s a certain professional decorum that “must” be maintained at a police funeral.
I also keep replaying the suspect murdering Lorne in my head. I keep trying to work out, in my head, how if it had been me behind that pillar, I would have done something different, ANYTHING different and I wouldn’t have been the one to get shot in the back. It’s something that officers do every time we watch a dash cam video. It’s human nature to rationalize away the fear and to help us “prepare” for the next time when it is us. We are guardians absolutely. We are affected by these moments of extreme violence directed at us however and this is where the warrior mindset was born. In that hellish situation of being fired upon, working tactically to overcome that threat. Being strong and conquering ones fear and staying alive – that is the appropriate place for the warrior in a gun battle. Not a warrior pitted against a segment of the populace – a warrior trying to stay alive against one trying to kill you.
These men who died were men of guardian hearts protecting citizens’ constitutional rights as warriors in a battle for their lives. And that dichotomy is a sense of struggle for me as an advocate for stronger police community relations, an inclusive in-group identity for citizen and police where they are not pitted against one another. It is imperative that we continue to deal with and overcome inherent bias and its effects on human beings. All this during a tense time in our nation.
So I need more sleep, I need to grieve, I need to do my job and I need to lead officers of whom I am extremely proud to serve along-side. These are truly men and women who are guardians of the City of Dallas. We can improve how we deal with conflict and deescalate tense situations and we can also support a police department with a history of reaching out and inclusivity with its citizenry.
These are my thoughts. I’m struggling like the rest of my brothers and sisters in blue are and I wanted to share these thoughts.
– Major Max Geron, Dallas Police Department, July 9, 2016
This piece originally appeared in Homeland Security Watch.