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Advice from police chiefs who dealt with mass shootings

Posted October 15, 2017 2:11 p.m. EDT

When mass killers gunned down innocent people in San Bernardino, California, Orlando, Florida and Newtown, Connecticut, local police chiefs became the narrators of tragedy. The world watched them for information every step of the way -- from the first grim disclosures of numbers of dead and wounded, through the gradual emergence of details about the shooter and the planning of the attack.

In Las Vegas, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo has been the face of the police response to the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, which left 58 dead and injured 546 people on October 1.

The visibly fatigued sheriff on Friday defended changes in the shooting timeline, which Las Vegas authorities have revised twice, and grew emotional as he praised heroic officers.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and retired Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe spoke to CNN last week, sharing what they learned after the shootings and offering advice to other police chiefs who find themselves dealing with this kind of tragedy. The interviews have been condensed and edited.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina

Omar Saddiqui Mateen, 29, opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub, in Orlando, killing least 49 people and injuring more than 500 on June 12, 2016. Police killed the gunman in attempt to free his hostages in the club, officials said.

What advice do you have for the next police chief who may be faced with a mass shooting?

Mina: I think regional training to ensure the region is prepared is good.

We had several big exercises here in the years leading up to the Pulse incident, one was run by the FBI.

Officers are going to do what they have to do to eliminate the threat and save as many people as possible. I think a lot of the work comes afterward, in the response in these types of incidents -- at least it was (the case) for Orlando, and I can say that in Las Vegas as well.

You're talking about a lot of survivors, a lot of family members of victims, and they all need assistance. So one of the things we did here in Orlando was create a family assistance center. It's kind of like one-stop shopping for survivors and for their families.

My biggest piece of advice to other chiefs is: Don't try and do that on your own. We were able to concentrate on scene security and help with the investigation, and left (the operation of the family centers) to other city departments to handle.

What toll did it take on you emotionally?

Mina: The first couple weeks I really didn't have time to think about it. But it does take a lot out of you.

I guess the totality of it really didn't hit me until I was at one of the first vigils. It was right across from city hall. It was in this huge grassy area on the property of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. It was just natural for everyone to kind of all gather there.

I just remember being overwhelmed by all the people who had showed up to show their support for the victims and their families.

My son was watching on TV (and) he saw my face. He knew. He basically texted me to say, 'Dad, are you alright?' He saw how tired I was, how it really emotionally drains you.

What did you learn about your department, and about humanity?

Mina: We have incredible men and women here.

When you're standing outside a building and you hear the very distinct sound of a rifle ... and you know that that rifle round will penetrate the vest that you are wearing, and yet you still go in there -- that's what I learned (about) the extreme courage and bravery of the men and women, of not only our police department but the surrounding police departments.

Six months later, one of sergeants was shot in the line of duty, so we had to deal with that, almost right on the heels of Pulse. We're a big family here.

I learned that there are evil people out there. There will always be evil people out there. But we have incredible humanity in our community.

People came forward to help, to assist, to help us heal, to help the community heal within hours of the shooting. Just like you saw in Las Vegas, they did here in Orlando. People lined up at the blood bank. Everyone wants to help.

That's what I learned, that people, they don't just turn on the TV and then turn it off .. They go volunteer. They go to a vigil.

Describe the process of gleaning information and relaying it to the public in the aftermath.

Mina: The first several days afterward, basically myself, the local sheriff here, the FBI, the mayor, the governor ... we all got together and formulated a plan.

We had two press conferences a day to give the latest information. I do remember there being a lot of discussion about, we need to get this timeline out to tell people what happened.

Our case is a little bit different in the fact that Las Vegas is running the investigation, with the FBI assisting. In our situation, the FBI -- because right from the beginning it was terrorism-related -- they took over the investigation. So they have a little bit more control over the information.

But we wanted to put out a lot more information as far as (the) timeline, as far as what we did in our response. We finally were able to do that; I would've liked to do it a little sooner. But then again, things do change. It's important to get it right, but people also have to understand that it's an ongoing investigation.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan

Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 39, opened fire at an employee gathering at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, killing 14 people. The couple was killed in a shootout with police the next day.

What advice do you have for the next police chief who may be faced with a mass shooting?

Burguan: I don't know that it's appropriate to say I'd be giving them advice. I think that the chiefs that are probably most successful in dealing with these things are people that have done a couple of things.

They've probably rehearsed these things in their mind to some extent. They've gone through the "what ifs" in their head and they have played out how things might happen and how you want your role to look in that.

That kind of goes back to the whole training and practice thing, but there's also a mental component to that.

Secondly, you have to learn that you don't do these things on your own.

There is no way that, as one individual, you're going to remember and think of everything that's got to be done that day, and remember all those boxes that have to be checked. You simply have to rely on people. Surround yourself with good people.

What toll did it take on you emotionally?

Burguan: I remember having moments in the middle of incident (or) shortly thereafter, sitting there doing a press conference or walking up to a group of people ... thinking to myself, "Did this really happen here?" Something of that large scale that brought that much attention, that brought that much pain.

In this business, you get used to dealing with dynamic things that most people don't deal with. That's just part of being a cop. Then, you have these events are really, really big that tend to become chapters in and of themselves in your career. So, there were a few moments when I thought, holy crap, this is actually happening. I have that. But beyond that ... I don't know that it affected me that deeply.

What did you learn about your department, and about humanity?

Burguan: You're proud of your folks when you see something terrible happen and you know that, at this moment, that the natural inclination is to run the other way or to protect yourself and to protect your own life.

To realize that there are these groups of professionals that you work with that run towards danger, it's kind of hard not to be proud of those folks. I think it's kind of incumbent upon you as the chief to, in many ways, you've got to become their biggest cheerleader.

In many ways, (mass shootings) will bring out the best in people and they'll bring out the worst in people. Undoubtedly in Vegas, they're seeing it now, and we saw it in our incident.

There are folks that are going to try to capitalize on something like that. They're going to capitalize off the pain of victims to try to advance their own cause, their own political agenda.

But you also see the best of humanity. There will be lines out the door at the blood banks; there are no shortages of people that are willing to step forward and say, "How can I help? What can I do?" Almost to the extent that it's too much -- which is not a bad problem to have.

Describe the process of gleaning information and relaying it to the public in the aftermath.

Burguan: One of the most challenging things you deal with is trying to get accurate information from your people. So, this is the way police departments are inherently structured -- we're a rank and file type of organization with a chain of command. The people that are actually doing the work are officers and detectives in many cases.

They're the ones that are actually doing the interviews with victims and witnesses and suspects. They are the ones that are actually collecting evidence.

Those people, in many cases, have the most accurate picture of what's happened. But even those people may only have one piece of information. The one officer may have interviewed three or four witnesses and they have the perspective of those three or four witnesses, and then they're trying to contribute what they've heard or what they know into a larger body of knowledge.

Ultimately that information is going to their supervisors, eventually getting to me. Then, all along the way, people are trying to vet and verify that the information going up is accurate.

I know exactly how you can go into an early press conference and give information that you believe to be true and correct, only to find out the next day or a week later, that you gave inaccurate information. And it's because of how difficult it is for accurate information to get from one side of that spectrum to the other.

Trying to slow down enough to get accurate information, I think, is one of the biggest challenges.

Retired Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe

Adam Lanza, 20, gunned down 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself. Police later found Lanza's mother, Nancy, dead from a gunshot wound.

What advice do you have for the next police chief who may be faced with a mass shooting?

Kehoe: I would want to recommend that you start to build resiliency very early on with your agency and with your officers. We know that law enforcement is challenged quite often with the work they have to do. If they can start to build resiliency early on, almost from the day they're hired, and certainly given basic recruit training -- then they'll be more likely to be successful in dealing with, not only the daily rigors of law enforcement, but certainly any kind of mass causality event they may unfortunately have to deal with.

We can't assume that everybody has the skill sets to deal with things that law enforcement will have to deal with from the get-go. You assume they will because you've done a lot of vetting of candidates. However, every candidate and every potential officer is different. The more information you give them, the more skill sets you give them, the best they'll be able to deal with these tragedies, if they should occur.

What toll did it take on you emotionally?

Kehoe: Certainly it affected me personally, just as I would say it affected many, many residents in our community, town leaders and officers and first responders.

It felt like a punch to the gut, more or less, because you don't want this to happen on your watch. You don't like to lose citizens of your community who you are sworn to protect and serve on your watch. Yet it happens. You feel almost powerless to have prevented it in some way and feel somewhat responsible.

Fortunately for me, I was a very veteran officer by the time this occurred in my career. I had built up some resiliency.

You're going to be changed. There's no doubt about it, and there is going to be kind of a new normal. And as a boss, you're thinking ... "when I can return to the things that we were normally doing before this event?" That's a tough call, because you're trying to gauge things within your own agency. You're kind of always feeling your way through it.

What did you learn about your department and about humanity?

Kehoe: I would praise my department till the day I die. They did their jobs that day and every day thereafter.

They handled it with a great degree of dignity and respect.

These kind of tragedies, they bring out the best in humanity. We felt that from around the country, certainly within our own state, and sometimes even globally where people reached out to us and offered support and care and understanding when they could.

Describe the process of gleaning information and relaying it to the public in the aftermath.

Kehoe: Fortunately, we had great people that were set up from the beginning that were able to handle the myriad of information-seeking that was asked of us.

I think because of the experience we had with our partners -- police and our people and our press coverage officers -- we were able to kind of in a way come up with a plan of action for the media. We were staging them in appropriate places. We were giving them briefings every two hours, or at least that was our plan when we could.

But we tried to give them as much information, as quickly as we could, that was accurate and certainly meaningful to them so they could report back to the general public.