Lessons Learned from the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting: An Interview with Lt Stephen Redfearn

Prior to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Aurora Movie Theatre shooting was the largest mass shooting in U.S. History. The incident will forever be seared into the public consciousness: while conducted at the premiere of the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, the mass casualty incident involved, up to that point, unprecedented police response, non-traditional life-saving measures by responding law enforcement officers, and extraordinary media/social media attention.

Join this recorded webinar, as Lieutenant Stephen Redfearn of the Aurora Police Department, discusses the response, the aftermath, and the lessons learned from this memorable event.

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar specifically about the events that transpired during the Aurora movie theater shooting. For those who may not remember that, or maybe they weren’t old enough to be paying attention, it’s been a while since. Tell us kind of what transpired.

Stephen Redfearn: On the very early morning of July 20th, 2012, a little bit after 12:30 am, the suspect, who was already in the movie theatre, opened fire on patrons for about a minute and a half. He was able to shoot over 70 people, 12 of those folks later passed away.

The suspect was taken into custody very quickly by Aurora PD patrol officers. And then a whole other string of events began because it was discovered that his residence was rigged with a large number of explosives. This began a several day process for our department to deal with both the crime scene at the theater, as well as the active, ongoing explosive device that was at his residence.


JCH:  Wasn’t that the weekend that one of the Batman movies opened?

Stephen: Yes, it was. The Batman movie premiere for The Dark Knight Rises began at midnight. It was a Thursday night into a Friday morning, July 19th-20th, because the movie started at midnight. The suspect had a ticket, then sat down and began to watch the movie. Around 12:38 am, he faked that he received a phone call. He went outside, retrieved his weapons, came back in, and began to shoot patrons after dropping a canister of a chemical similar to tear gas.



The biggest thing we learned is that you cannot ever adequately prepare for something like this.

No matter how much training you’ve had,

no matter how much you’ve done ahead of time.

There’s always going to be things that are missed

just because there’s always gonna be things that you cannot prepare for.


JCH:  I remember from one of the interviews that people couldn’t tell whether the noise was from the movie? 

Stephen: Correct. The movie was playing already, and so many people that we later spoke to said they thought that it was some sort of publicity thing since it was the opening night of this movie. It took the patrons a couple of few seconds to figure out what was happening. As soon as they smelled that there it was a tear gas-type of substance, I think most of them realized that it was not something [like a publicity act] related to the movie.


JCH:  What were the biggest challenges that you, as a police officer, faced when you were responding to this emergency?

Stephen: The sheer number of people who were involved was one big challenge. We had multiple theaters, that were affected. The shooting took place in one theater, but many of the suspects rounds actually penetrated a wall and shot people in another theater. So we had two, very large theaters with 300 or so people in each. So we had a massive number of eye witnesses, per se.  We also had 12 or 13 other theaters full of people. So just the sheer number of people we encountered upon arrival was unique to this scenario, just because of the venue.

The other issue was we needed to quickly address was the issue of two locations. We had the movie theater, with a massive amount of victims. But then we realized that we also had this major problem with his apartment (rigged with explosives). It was very manpower intensive, so we quickly exhausted a lot of our resources.

One of the biggest challenges, too, that we dealt with was that there was a massive amount of media from all over the world that descended upon our jurisdiction. That was definitely a unique challenge, unlike anything we had ever seen in our jurisdiction.

One another challenge that popped up within the first few hours after our response was having to determine who was going to take the lead on the investigation.

Especially with law enforcement executives, we often talk about when you have something like this, you have to determine early on if it’s going to be treated as a case of domestic terrorism — which typically the federal government will handle, or if it’s going to be treated as a homicide — which local jurisdictions will be the lead on. So that had to be ironed out very quickly because all of the additional tasks such as evidence reports, that are all dictated by who is going to take the lead. So that had to be done relatively quickly.

A couple other things we had to deal with that were challenging was communication with the fire department and other agencies. One thing that would have helped was to, right away, establish a unified command. We didn’t initially do that, and we’ve learned that it’s we needed to do.

Another issue was making notifications to the loved ones and family members of the deceased. It took over a day to do. That’s not abnormal but that was very challenging because we had to make sure we had proper identifications on the victims before we could notify family members and that was very difficult just because of the number of victims that we had.

One unique thing that we dealt with was the fact that our suspect survived. Typically in these mass shootings, the suspect either commits suicide or is killed by law enforcement. So the fact that we took our suspect into custody created other challenges because now we had a criminal investigation and a suspect who is in custody. And then for years, up to and including the trial, we had the court process and evidentiary issues and all that.



JCH:  One of the things that you talked about was his apartment. Can you recap what the situation was with his apartment? 

Stephen: Sure. He had rigged a very extensive device that was designed to detonate when someone opened the door to his apartment. He’d actually set a stereo with loud music with, what we believe the intent was, to have law enforcement come and open that door, or to knock on the door hard enough for it to open and trigger this device.

The device would’ve burned heavily and for a very long time. He had actually had improvised explosive devices in that device with ammunition,  homemade explosives, and homemade different chemical compounds that would’ve really done a lot of damage. So it was a very volatile scene. And soon as the officers looked inside the apartment, they realized that it was quite dangerous. That triggered a several day response and ongoing event there at his apartment as well.



JCH:   How did you find out about the apartment? Did he tell you, or was that just part of your standard operating procedure to be cautious in entering his place?

Stephen:  He indicated there might be something there at his apartment. Just as, in the normal investigative process, we for some time thought that there might have been additional shooters.  It was just standard that we would go to his place eventually. We went to his house, and then thankfully looked inside, and then proceeded from there with caution.



JCH:  You mentioned that there were so many people involved in this because it was an opening weekend for a major anticipated movie. How did you prepare for that many people? If I remember right, that was one of the multiplexes there in Aurora, Colorado. There were 1000-1200 people there possibly?  How do you prepare for that?

Stephen: You don’t really, other than to maybe have some things already pre-arranged with different entities. What we ended up doing with all the witnesses was, we ended up getting buses from our transit system to take the witnesses to another location. That was done fairly quickly and on the fly. Then we found this high school that we were able to take everybody to. But to have some of that stuff pre-arranged would have been beneficial. To already know, “here’s who we call to get buses,” and “here’s a location where we can access 24/7 —  where we can take people to” in a large incident like this … To have some of that already arranged is beneficial.



Make the training realistic.

We do tabletop exercises: those are great.

They serve their purpose. But they’re not going to adequately prepare the first responders,

the people who actually be the ones responding to that call.



JCH:   People often say you can try to plan for everything but inevitably something gets missed. Similar to what you were saying: It would’ve been nice to have that thought out, or to have somebody’s phone number. What are those tiny, little details that you would’ve liked to have had or known before going through this event? And how did your experience shape your ongoing and subsequent preparedness for mass casualty or active shooter events?

Stephen: I think the biggest thing we learned is that you cannot ever adequately prepare for something like this. No matter how much training you had, no matter how much you’ve done ahead of time. There’s always going to be things that are missed just because there’s always gonna be things that you cannot prepare for.

But we had done a decent amount of active shooter training prior to this incident. I’ve heard from many coworkers, that as we were going through this, it did feel like some of the training that we had done.  But we cannot train enough on this stuff.

And that’s what we recommended to other agencies – to train, train, train. And make the training very realistic – not just some sterile classroom environment. You have to throw things in, like noise and smoke, and have actors that have wounds and things like that. One of the things that helped was the training, but clearly, we could’ve had more.

One of the things that we should have done better was having a unified command. What that entails is having the incident commander from the police department, from the fire department, from other agencies all in one spot, and all running the incident together in one unified way.

We did not get that unified command established quickly because of the very large number of activities going on at the same. Many of the first responding officers were supervisors, however, they had to jump into roles that weren’t traditional supervisor roles, just because of the massive amount of victims we had and things like that.



JCH: And for folks who don’t know the area, the Aurora Police Department isn’t very far from that particular movie theater, if I remember right?

Stephen: Correct. It’s about half a mile the way the crow flies. We were able to get there within less than a minute and a half. It just happened that many of the first people there were supervisors.



Pre-plan a lot of these things:

know those spots in your jurisdiction that are likely to be targeted for a mass shooting or terrorist attack,

and really have those venues researched out ahead of time.


JCH: Many of our members will likely not have to experience this kind of a mass casualty, thank goodness.  But putting your consulting hat on for just a second, what would you encourage agencies to do so they can be as prepared as possible? I think you’ve already touched on one thing, training – even if you don’t think you need it. What else would you recommend?

Stephen: Make that training is realistic is the really key part. We do tabletop exercises, those are great, those serve their purpose, but they’re not going to adequately prepare the first responders, the people who are actually the ones responding to that call. The training needs to be realistic. That can be done with volunteers as actors, with smoke, with noise. It’s not going to be a sterile environment. Many times we experienced sensory overload with so much going on — so that training has to be realistic.

Pre-planning a lot of these things, knowing those spots in your jurisdiction that are likely to be targeted for a mass shooting or terrorist attack, and really having those venues researched out ahead of time is important. Have your folks go and do walk throughs and have floor plans. Have your tactical folks do training in some of these venues. We all know where those likely targets in our communities are. To have some pre-planning done at those spots ahead of time will be beneficial.

And then, really study other mass shootings we’ve got, unfortunately, plenty to draw from, including ours and Orlando, there’s so many. Look at where things went well, how things went wrong or how things could’ve done better. For supervisors who will be taking command on some of these incidents, study those responses and learn. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, you can learn from other agencies — what they did well, what they didn’t.

One thing that we have developed after our shooting is that all of our patrol officers now carry trauma kits that have tourniquets and first aid equipment. One of the things we encountered with our unit was that some officers left their gas masks in the car when they ran into the shooting. So we encourage anytime there’s a response to something like this, a gas mask goes with them.



There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

You can learn from other agencies and what they did well, what they didn’t.



JCH: It’s been five years since the theater shooting, how did this incident change or impact the Aurora PD and the community. How did it impact your culture? How is the department taking care of those who went through that experience?

Stephen: We had over 100 officers who responded that night just from our department. There were some unique challenges to make sure that we did take care of our people. Our peer support program has gotten much stronger. It was in existence then, but I think because of that incident, it was really going to have a ripple effect both in the community and the police department.

There’s a lot of vicarious trauma for even the officers, other civilian staff, and folks who weren’t first responders that can affect on many levels.  It may not manifest until years later, so we’ve really had to make sure we do our best to keep up our psychological services, even if just to reach out every so often, as well as our peer support group.

The incident changed a lot of us personally, just understanding the fact that it really could happen. Actually going through it just put things in perspective a bit. We’ve rebounded as a department, as a community, and I think that at some aspects we probably are stronger because of it. I think that everybody here learned that we can do better– do things ahead of time, and to make sure we take care of our people. But we’ve also learned to rely on other agencies and groups in a massive incident like this.  We’re lucky because we’re a fairly large-sized agency.  But we still needed help from a lot of different entities.

We really did our best to recover from this.

We’ve done some very nice things in the community that have linked our department with some of the survivors, and for the families of the victims who didn’t survive. And this 5-year anniversary we continue to do different memorials and things like that. Those are probably the things that come to mind.



JCH:  A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from across the entire justice spectrum, as you know. What are some of the specific types of things that a justice professional or other first responders will gain by attending the webinar that day? What new skills, what new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day?

Stephen: A big thing for us is we’re not afraid to talk about our lessons learned. I will discuss probably 20-plus lessons that we learned from our event and they’re very applicable when someone else has an incident.

And again, we don’t talk about if, it’s a matter of when. It doesn’t matter what jurisdiction someone is in, or what role they have in public safety, they will be responding to these type of events, unfortunately. It’s great to hear from someone who’s gone through something like this and had a fairly favorable outcome, which we, for the most part, did.

There’s nothing we could’ve done differently to save the folks that died, but our response successfully helped the ones who could survive and obviously apprehended the suspect.

Our event involved every single aspect of our department. It didn’t matter what department or what position someone worked in. Everyone got shoved into the middle of a situation.

The biggest thing is to share the lessons that we learned and hope that the next time an agency has to respond to something like this, they can use something we’ve already gone through. And hopefully work some of these things out ahead of time so that their response is just a little bit better because of something they can learn from our experience.


Click here to watch “Lessons Learned from the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting.”




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