DENVER – Eight minutes after the call went out about a gunman opening fire outside a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, an officer called into his radio the words that no cop wants to hear: “I’ve been shot.”
Hit in the hand, the officer asked for help – he had just arrived at the chaotic scene and didn’t know if the gunman was approaching him to finish him off. “I will shoot him if he moves toward you, brother,” another officer replied.
The gunbattle ultimately claimed the life of one officer and injured a total of five, the highest police casualty count in a single incident in the U.S. in two years and a reflection of the danger that mass shootings pose to police.
Police are wounded in about 25 percent of cases like the Nov. 27 Colorado Springs shooting, where officers arrive while the gunman is still firing, said Pete Blair, an associated professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.
“It makes it the most dangerous call that a police officer can get, that I know of,” said Blair, who co-authored an FBI report that reviewed 160 active shooter incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2013.
Active shooters are generally defined as one or two gunmen bent on mass killings, Blair said. Robberies, family violence and gang-related shootings are excluded.
A combination of factors makes active shooters especially perilous, experts say. Some shooters don’t care whether they live or die. And officers hoping to save victims’ lives often confront the gunman without backup and without much information about what he looks like or where he is.
That was the case in Colorado Springs, where a recording of police radio transmissions shows officers were trying to find the gunman and save injured civilians while under deadly fire themselves.
Dispatchers reported at least four civilians had already been shot while officers were trying to pinpoint where the gunman was – at the Planned Parenthood, in a grocery store parking lot or on a nearby ridge – or whether he had left the area entirely.
“I just got shot at. He’s behind Planned Parenthood,” one officer said about seven minutes into the incident.
“Who’s shooting at us, the shooter or the responding officers?” another asked.
Later, police briefly lost track of the gunman when he got inside the clinic. “We cannot locate the shooter,” one officer said. “He is in the Planned Parenthood building firing through the windows,” another said.
Twenty-two minutes after the first officer was hit, a second was shot in the leg. Six minutes later, a third officer was shot dead.
Three more officers were shot and wounded inside the clinic about two hours later as SWAT teams tried to corner the suspect and rescue people from hiding places, the radio reports show.
“He’s just shooting indiscriminately through the walls, and that’s how we got hit this time,” a commander said after the last officer was hit.
The Colorado Springs shooter – identified by police as 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear – surrendered about five hours after the attack began.
When Dear appeared in court Wednesday, he called himself a “warrior for the babies” and said he would not go to trial, stunning onlookers. The outburst came before prosecutors formally charged him with first-degree murder and other counts.
Three people were killed in the shootings – two civilians and officer Garrett Swasey, a member of the police force at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus who had gone to help. Nine people were injured, including the five other officers who were shot.
The last time that many officers were hit by gunfire in a single incident was in October 2013, when police and a federal agent in Roseville, California, tried to arrest a wanted man, the FBI said. None were killed.
Most police and sheriff’s departments give individual officers the authority to decide whether to take on an active shooter immediately or wait for backup, said Sid Heal, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander and now a consultant with the Police Policy Studies Council.
“By and large, they go,” Heal said.
It’s a tactic adopted after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in suburban Denver. Following standard practice at the time, officers waited outside until commanders believed they had sufficient numbers, equipment and information to enter the building, but they came under widespread criticism for not moving in sooner.
In last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, responding officers entered a social service center without knowing how many gunmen there were or whether they were still in the building. The shooters eventually were tracked to another location, where they died in a gunbattle with police.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said the officers’ willingness to immediately confront the shooter helped make possible the rescue of 24 people trapped inside the clinic, along with 300 others who took cover in nearby businesses.
Suthers, who served as state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Colorado before he was elected mayor in May, said he didn’t know whether the gunman was targeting officers.
“The police realize you have to be aggressive to intervene and not let a perpetrator have free reign in there and wind up killing as many people as possible,” he said.