Regular cops, not SWAT, were the tactical heroes of the day, report finds
A rookie got the first critical clue to the terrorists' identities
The SWAT team was just finishing up an “active-shooter” training exercise when they got the call that a real-life massacre was taking place at a San Bernardino County government building.
The team arrived in nine minutes, but too late to make the initial entry. A San Bernardino detective, a patrol officer, a motorcycle officer and a staff lieutenant on his lunch break had already entered the building with only handguns to rescue people they believed were still under threat by shooters armed with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles on December 2, 2015.
The non-tactical team moved in a “diamond formation” they had learned during active-shooter training; they went through the door, uncertain of what waited, after one uttered, “Okay, it is time to go.”
“I felt so naked, because we didn’t have cover and concealment approaching the building,” the patrol officer told debriefers who studied the police response. “You know you are outgunned; it is going to be hard to beat an AR with a handgun, so I knew we needed good shot placement.”
The remarks were part of the 141-page review of the police response to the shootings, which left 14 people dead and 22 wounded.
The report was released Friday by the Police Foundation, a non-profit that works to improve policing methods. It analyzed the response to the terrorist attack with the cooperation of local law enforcement to assist other departments in planning and training for major attacks.
The report illustrates the importance of all police officers having “active-shooter” training instead of relying on SWAT teams trained for barricaded and hostage scenarios.
It also detailed the resolute courage of specific officers and victims under fire, the almost instantaneous teamwork between different departments that brought down the terrorists and how even a rookie could help end a major terrorist attack.
The killing scene
The four officers entered the dark building, smoky from gunfire, to the uncontrollable moaning of the wounded, anguished voices calling for help and 14 bodies strewn across the floor, the report said.
Blood was everywhere, sprinklers were hissing and a fire alarm wailed. Gunshot victims grabbed at their legs in hope of aid, but the team followed its training and forged ahead in search of the shooters.
“If you were picking a team, the four of us were not the ones that would be picked first, but we have all had active-shooting training,” said the lieutenant, who led the entry team. “It just seemed like we knew what our roles were and what we were supposed to do.”
They soon learned the killers were gone and that three county workers died as heroes. They were shot to death when charging a terrorist in an effort to save the lives of colleagues, the report said.
The attack and the first critical clue
The three died shortly after 11 a.m. at a holiday event for staff at a county center for people with developmental disabilities.
The killing started when a masked man, dressed in black tactical attire, swung open the door and sprayed bullets.
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A second shooter entered, clad similarly, and began firing an assault weapon calmly and deliberately. One bullet hit a pipe of the sprinkler system in the ceiling, sending a spray of water, the report said.
“Three male county workers tried to stop the shooters by rushing one of the gunmen but all three were shot,” the report said. “The shooters walked between tables throughout the room firing shots at anybody who moved or made a sound. After firing more than 100 .223-caliber rounds, the shooters hastily disappeared in a black SUV.”
A rookie patrolman was talking to one survivor who said the body language of one of the shooters reminded him of a coworker, Syed Rizwan Farook, who had been around the event but left about a half hour before the shooting started, the report said.
Co-workers had held a baby shower for Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a few months earlier.
The rookie had found a critical lead. He called his father, who was a sergeant in San Bernardino’s narcotics division. The name Rizwan Farook went quickly up the chain of command. Crime analysts identified a handful of people with that name, the report said, and units were dispatched to all known addresses, some 45 minutes away.
A crime analyst matched a rented black SUV with Farook and Malik. Investigators also identified Farook’s cellphone number and triangulated his location. A ping off a cell tower said he was in the neighboring community of Redlands.
San Bernardino officers arrived at the Redlands home in time to see a black SUV leaving, the report said. They followed, calling for backup officers. In heavy traffic, the officers alerted a Redlands Police sergeant – who was monitoring an unrelated stolen car pursuit – that the black SUV was the target vehicle in the earlier mass shooting, the report said.
The sergeant was forced to use his lights and siren to ward off oncoming traffic as he tried to get behind the SUV. That alerted its two passengers, who took off down San Bernardino Avenue, not far from the original shooting scene, the report said.
Suddenly the back window of the SUV shattered with gunfire as one of the passengers shot at the sergeant and then at a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy who had arrived in his car to assist.
Immediately, officers from all three responding agencies – SBCSD, SBPD, and Redlands Police Department – alerted their fellow forces that they were under fire, which ultimately brought nearly 200 officers to the battle scene.
The SUV slammed on its brakes, and the sergeant stopped 210 feet back while the deputy stopped his vehicle 68 feet from the SUV, the report said.
“As soon as the siren stopped and I put it in park, we were shooting at each other,” the deputy said, explaining that he ended the pursuit while driving with his knee and holding his rifle pointing forward.
Rizwan Farook fired from outside his vehicle while his wife fired from the inside, the report said. The deputy was firing every gun available to him, including a Ruger Mini-14 .223 tactical rife, a shotgun and a handgun.
Multiple police cars swarmed the scene for the firefight, and the officers in those cars protected the deputy from being flanked by Farook.
Gunfire brought down Farook, who lost his AR-15 when he fell. He rose to a seated position and switched to a handgun, but it malfunctioned after firing one round, the report said.
Rounds continued to hit him, the report said. He sustained 25 bullet wounds, some while trying to rise.
“He went down ultimately where he was killed, but before that he switched to a handgun, and I kept shooting,” the deputy said. “I saw a bunch of blood coming out. I knew he was out of the fight.”
Tashfeen Malik was still firing repeatedly at police from inside the SUV. She hit a San Bernardino officer in the thigh, a wound which another officer quickly dressed as the gunfight continued.
Police used a cruiser for cover to rescue the deputy and the wounded officer. Meanwhile, a barrage of gunfire from multiple angles hammered the SUV, hitting Malik 15 times, with two bullets striking her head and killing her.
The terrorists fired at least 81 rounds at officers. Altogether, 24 officers fired at least 440 shots at Farook and Malik, the report said.
“Several officers felt bullets whizzing by as they exited their vehicles approximately 80 yards back, one later describing a scene so strangely serene that he could clearly hear his own breathing,” the report said.
Overall, more than 175 law enforcement officers from various local, county, state, and federal agencies arrived at the battle scene.
The Redlands sergeant said he became aware of the overwhelming support after the firing ceased.
“I couldn’t believe when I turned around and saw how many police officers there were standing behind the car,” he said. “That was quite a sight to see.”
A search of the SUV uncovered:
• An additional 1,879 rounds of .223 ammunition for the rifles and 484 rounds of 9-mm bullets for the pistol. Some of the bullets were still in an ammo canister while some were in a black backpack where some magazines had been taped together for quicker reloading.
• Investigators found what they believed were triggers intended for detonating explosives located at the government center.
• Medical supplies were found in a blue backpack, including ibuprofen pills; several quick-clot agents, including tourniquets, to stop bleeding; emergency bandages for traumatic wounds; and even adult diapers, possibly to act as absorbing bandages.