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Lessons Learned from Isla Vista Mass Shooting

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Responding to an active shooter event in a single location can pose challenges for police and first responders. However, when an incident occurs in multiple locations throughout a town, the response and investigation can be extremely challenging.

mass shooting
A packed room of attendees listens to presentations during INLETS 2016.

During the 6th annual Mid-Atlantic INLETS: Violent Crimes & Terrorism Trends seminar on June 20-24, officers from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office in California presented a case study about the 2014 mass shooting in Isla Vista.

Isla Vista is 13 miles north of Santa Barbara and a highly populated area with more than 23,000 people. Most residents are college students because the community borders the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Santa Barbara City College. Isla Vista is a beachside community known as a party town.

Because of the population density, policing in cars is challenging so most law enforcement officers patrol on foot, said Lt. Kevin Huddle. May 23, 2014 was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, which is a hard time for the agency to predict how to staff its department. “Sometimes students all leave and the town is empty and other times they decide to stay and host the holiday party,” said Huddle. That particular night, the department had on duty two sergeants, 11 deputies and three University of California police officers, all on foot patrol.

Reports of Shots Fired

Around 9:20 p.m., the department started receiving 911 calls of a person shooting out the window of a moving car. Dispatch was soon flooded with calls from around the city about people being shot from someone in a BMW. It was extremely challenging for police to identify where the suspect was located because, as it turned out, the perpetrator was driving in loops through the town shooting people and hitting others with his car, said Officer Joe Schmidt.

Police immediately blocked the three exit points for the area to keep the perpetrator from escaping. However, little did police know that the perpetrator did not intend to flee. “His entire intent was to kill as many people as possible and he had no plans for escape,” said Huddle. “We went into this situation anticipating chasing this person and neutralizing the threat, but in his mind he was staying in the area and wreaking as much havoc as possible.”

After eight minutes, police located the perpetrator. During the pursuit, he shot himself in the head. When it was over, six innocent people were killed plus the suspect during the mass shooting. Seven people were shot, but survived. Fourteen others were wounded. The perpetrator fired 55 rounds and had 548 more rounds in his car. In total, there were 17 crime scenes throughout Isla Vista.

Identifying the Perpetrator and Finding the Last Crime Scene

During the event, police received a call from the perpetrator’s mom, who had been watching the news and was worried because she received a disturbing video and manifesto from her son. She sent police a digital copy of the 137-page manifesto, which outlined his three-phase plan. During his mass shooting spree, he planned to first kill his roommates, then set out to murder as many sorority women as possible. Lastly, he planned to drive his car around and cause as much mayhem as possible before killing himself.

Upon receiving the manifesto, SWAT responded to the perpetrator’s apartment where they found three people stabbed to death. One person was stabbed more than 90 times. The perpetrator went to great lengths to stage the victims, cover them up and clean up some of the blood. He also left additional videos and writings in his room.

[Related: Getting to the Heart of Issues Behind Mass Shootings]

The perpetrator responsible for the mass shooting was identified as Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old man who had dropped out of Santa Barbara City College. Police later learned he had been planning this mass shooting attack for more than two years. He used fixed blade knives, a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and his BMW as weapons.

Command Issues During Mass Shooting

Commander Kelly Moore was charged with coordinating the response to this mass shooting and shared several challenges and lessons learned with INLETS attendees. One of the first problems during the response was that the agency did not immediately put a single person in command. “If you are ever in this situation, somebody has to take control and direct resources and start tasking this out. It took us way too long to establish command,” he said. When he was given command, he immediately designated others in charge of each functional group. He appointed different lieutenants to take charge of crime scene investigations, obtaining witness interviews, resource designation, and one to liaise with the victims’ families.

Media Relations

Media relations are also a critical, and often overwhelming, part of active shooter events for police agencies. “It was a media circus. While we’re trying to manage crime scenes and get victims to the hospital, the media was searching for people who saw something,” said Moore.

[Related: Sandy Hook, Aurora Leaders Share Commonalities of Responding to Mass Casualty Events]

Though the department held press conferences, the agency faced challenges only releasing accurate information. “Your primary goal initially is to communicate to the public that they’re safe now and that the perpetrator has been stopped,” he said. Do not get caught up trying to share too much information, too soon, he said. While the media will hound an agency for more details, it is important to focus on the integrity of the investigation and release only accurate information as it is confirmed.

Crime Scene Challenges

When police started their crime scene investigation process, they believed there were only six crime scenes, but there turned out to be nearly triple that many. One of the mistakes Moore said he made was not calling in the evidence response team from the LA field office of the FBI to assist. Had he been told earlier there were 17 crime scenes, he would have known his officers would need outside help to collect and process all the evidence.

[Related: How First Responders Can Help Preserve Crime Scene Evidence]

It took about 30 hours to process all the scenes and this became a significant issue because the scenes were located throughout Isla Vista. “We had to shut down the entire town – businesses couldn’t get delivery trucks in and it was a big moving-out weekend because it was the last day of college,” he said. So there was a lot of pressure from the public to open the town up again.

In addition, it took a large number of people to secure each scene. There were a minimum of two deputies needed for each scene, which meant there were 34 deputies required while each scene was processed. Moore emphasized the value of mutual aid assistance with neighboring agencies. He also advised commanders request mutual aid early in the process and be clear about how other agencies can provide assistance. This proved necessary as the department received several unrelated calls for service that needed to be addressed.

Lessons Learned from Mass Shooting

Responding to the Isla Vista incident led to many lessons learned for the agency. “Request what you need early and often,” said Moore. “You can always cancel and send it back.” Commanders also need to follow up on requests to make sure the agency received what was promised.

It’s also critical for commanders to “keep your head on a swivel,” he said. “It would’ve been beneficial to have someone by my side reminding me of things that needed to be addressed.”

[Related: How the Virginia Tech Mass Shooting Changed Campus Security Forever]

While it’s important to trust in the ability of officers, it’s also important to make sure things are clearly communicated so tasks are being completed as expected. One of the things Moore said worked well was that he gave assignments and then allowed his officers to do their jobs.

Medical Response Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in responding to this event was that medical personnel could not provide assistance until the shooter was neutralized. In California, fire and medics stage outside the scene and do not enter “hot zones” where the threat remains high, said Huddle. This delayed how quickly victims could be treated.

[Related: Departments Train Citizens to be First Responders During Active Shootings]

Since the shooting, the agency began incorporating the county fire department in its active shooter training. “We’re doing this so they have a better understanding of what’s going on during such an event,” Moore said. “We’re never going to ask them to go into an active shooter scene, but they can now go into warm zones, under the protection of deputies, to triage people earlier.” Firefighters and medical first responders have since been provided bullet-proof vests. While there was some initial reluctance to be further involved in active shooter incidents, Moore said this incident has helped educate all local first responders about how to better respond to an active shooter event.

Read about other presentations from INLETS:

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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