An alarming fact has been lost after the ballroom shooting in Monterey Park, California, which killed 11 people: It took authorities five hours to alert the public that the gunman was at large Saturday night.
Even after the 72-year-old gunman brought a submachine gun-style weapon to another nearby dance hall about half an hour later, and a possible attack was thwarted by a hero who grabbed the gun and chased the man away, it would still be hours before police held a press conference to announce the suspect was still at large.
Experts say the weekend’s mass shooting, which sparked fear in Los Angeles-area Asian-American communities, highlights the lack of national standards for notifying the public and the need for an aggressive alert system — similar to Amber Alerts — that immediately sounds alarms Cell phones would trigger in the area and post warnings on highway signs.
“Five hours is kind of ridiculous,” said Chris Grollnek, an expert in active shooter tactics and a retired police officer and member of the SWAT team. “This is going to be a really good case study. Why five hours?”
Brian Higgins, a former SWAT team commander and police chief in Bergen County, New Jersey, said an alarm should have gone off immediately, and that a half-hour between the two incidents was more than enough time.
“What took so long?” said Higgins, an associate professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Maybe they were still conducting their investigation. Maybe they didn’t know exactly what they had. But if they didn’t know, they should have played it safe and published this.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said Monday his department was “strategic” in its decision to release information, but he would investigate what happened.
“When we first started releasing public information, the priority was to get that person into custody,” Luna said. “Ultimately it worked. We’ll go back and look at it like we always do. Nobody is as critical as we are of what worked and what didn’t work, and evaluate that and see how long you’ve waited to determine what the public risk was at that point.”
A timeline of events shows police remained silent for hours not only that a gunman was at large but that a shooting had even taken place, with information leaking from police scanners and sources rather than official channels. The delays came just hours after tens of thousands of revelers took to the streets of the heavily Asian-American city to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Authorities said the first call about the shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio came in at 10:22 p.m. local time on Saturday and officers responded within three minutes. Monterey Park Police said it took officers several minutes – some of whom were newcomers to the force – to assess the chaotic scene and search for the gunman, who had already fled.
About 20 minutes after the first shot, at 10:44 a.m., the gunman, who would later be identified as Huu Can Tran, marched into the Lai Lai ballroom at the Alhambra, about 3 miles away. He was confronted in the lobby by 26-year-old Brandon Tsay.
Tsay, a computer coder who helps run the dance hall for his family, told the New York Times he was unaware of the previous Monterey Park shooting when he lunged at the man and began struggling to get him the getting the gun out of your hands. Tsay eventually confiscated the gun and ordered him, “Go, get out of here!” and watched as he drove away in a white van.
More than an hour later, at 11:53 p.m., word broke that the gunman was still at large — not from an official source, but from a media outlet that monitored police gossip on a scanner. “The suspect is still at large, according to the PD at the scene,” RMG News tweeted.
The Associated Press began calling the Monterey Park police and fire department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shortly before the RMG News alert, calling for nearly three hours. The Monterey Park police never responded. A sheriff’s officer confirmed to the AP that there were nine deaths just before 2:36 a.m. Sunday, when the AP issued an alert.
At 2:49 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Information Office issued a news report confirming the deaths and adding that the suspect was male. There was still no mention that he was at large.
Just after 3:30 a.m., five hours after the shooting, the Sheriff-Capt. Andrew Meyer of Los Angeles County held a press conference to announce the death toll of 10 and to say publicly for the first time, “The suspect fled the scene and is still pending.”
On Sunday afternoon, police in Torrance, 30 miles away, raided a shopping center parking lot and surrounded a white van matching the description of the one Tran had last seen. After approaching cautiously, SWAT teams broke in at 1 p.m. to find Tran dead in the driver’s seat with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Police are still investigating a motive for the killings.
Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who ran the agency’s active shooter program, acknowledged that such mass shooting cases can be confusing and hectic, and that “the victims and survivors always come first.”
But, she said, “Communicating with the public is just as important. Generally, if law enforcement believes there is an additional threat to the public, or are looking for a suspect, they notify the public.”
Vibrating smartphone alerts on everything from missing children and elderly people to impending snow gusts and flash floods have become commonplace over the past decade. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 1,600 federal, state, and local jurisdictions — including Los Angeles County — are equipped to send such cellphone alerts through the federally funded integrated public alert and warning system.
“We have the technology,” said former FBI agent Gregory Shaffer, now head of a Dallas-based risk management and tactical training firm. “It’s just not being used.”
A House bill last year would have set up an Active Shooter Alert Network to replace the messy patchwork of alert systems used by thousands of cities and towns, plagued by delays in messaging and low enrollments. It died in the Senate, but one of its sponsors, US Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, said late Monday he intended to reintroduce the legislation.
“I think the fact that people have been let down in this situation for an awfully long time speaks to the need for the bill,” Thompson said. “People need to be warned”
Condon and Mustian reported from New York and Watson from San Diego. Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.
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