The day of Dec. 2, 2015 will be etched into my memory for the rest of my life. I’ve spent the better part of my career watching other communities experience mass shooting events at schools, workplaces, churches; the list goes on. On Dec. 2, it was San Bernardino’s turn. It became one of those days that, as a chief, you think about and you run scenarios through your head wondering how you might respond if it ever happens in your city.
Some have said they thought the response from our department and our regional partners that day was textbook. Some have heaped a great deal of praise on the response and the leadership on display that day. I’ll readily admit that it’s nice to hear the compliments, and it feels good to play a part in showing the honorable side of our profession, especially in light of what our profession has been through in recent years.
But inside our department, we know it was organized chaos. It was not flawless and it was not textbook since there are no textbooks that can possibly prepare you for handling these types of dynamic incidents. One person does not make it all happen. This case was brought to a successful ending and was solved because officers not only did their jobs—they showed exceptional skill and intelligence, and they worked together in what will likely be the most complex multijurisdictional event most of them will experience in their careers.
- They cleared multiple large buildings where inside 14 people had been killed and another 22 were wounded.
- They grabbed the wounded, pulled them out, and got them across the street to a triage center set up by responding paramedics.
- One officer, talking to a frightened witness, keyed in on a name—a small piece of information that led to identifying a possible suspect.
- Civilian employees back at the station performed remarkably well in managing radio traffic and conducting backroom analytical work on our possible suspect.
- Then, we got a little lucky when our officers encountered the two terrorists as they passed through their neighborhood in another city, but really that was just good police work.
- It was more good police work—heroic police work—when the terrorists were stopped from what I firmly believe would have been another future attack, and ultimately put down.
None of those things happen by chance. Law enforcement entities throughout this region hire smart men and women, our training standards are as fine as you would find in the country, and we work together in a variety of ways, such as teaming up on major events, working together on joint task forces, and on the executive level, meeting frequently.
My point is, you can’t have an incident like this and think you are going to build relationships on the fly.
In San Bernardino County, we have a meeting every month with Sheriff John McMahon, all 10 local police chiefs, the local California Highway Patrol chief, and District Attorney Mike Ramos. We discuss whatever needs to be discussed to keep relationships good between our agencies. Sometimes it’s a light conversation and sometimes it’s on significant issues. But every month we meet and put issues on the table.
Prior to Dec. 2, I had never met Dave Bowdich, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles Field Office. Needless to say, we know each other pretty well now and have forged a strong relationship. In fact, it has been remarkably good.
Of course, there is a perception that when the local authorities and federal law enforcement tackle a major case together, there is a tug of war that goes on for control. That certainly wasn’t the situation here; our relationship and cooperation between agencies were exceptionally good.
On Dec. 2, in the minutes and hours after the attack, the scene became a destination point for a vast variety of law enforcement personnel from throughout our region. Without those relationships built in the months and years leading up to that point, it could have been a confusing, daunting and frustrating scene. As I said before, it was chaotic; but our officers talk the same language, train the same, share a radio system for interagency communication, and in many cases, know one another. It was as smooth as an operation of that size and magnitude could have been.
This was an investigation that was going to be massive. It was welcoming to have those regional partners show up. Even though we had more resources there than we needed, and at times we had people standing around after the initial scene was stabilized, I was grateful because, particularly early on, we didn’t know where everything was headed.
Every single man and women that worked that day is to be commended. Everyone was respectful. They made my job as the incident commander so much easier.
Despite the event being a display of outstanding teamwork, to many, I became the face of the incident as a result of the various press briefings we held in the first several days. In the middle of the chaos, you don’t have an appreciation for how people are watching from home or perceive what you are doing and how you are managing things. In the days and weeks that followed, I had countless people approach me and talk about how we managed that incident, how we communicated through those press events and of course how we ended that situation made them feel safe, made them feel informed, and made them feel that their local cops had everything under control.
There is a time and place where you rely on your people to communicate a message, and there is a time and a place when the chief needs to be in front of everybody. This was one of those times. You have to give yourself up to the demands that come your way. I had political folks from the local, state and federal level that desperately wanted information and briefings; the local, national and international media was there with their demands to deliver news to their customer base; and then very quickly after, there was the community that desperately wanted to hear from me in person.
I have come to firmly understand that it is so important for people to hear the story, at least, as much as you can give them without of course hurting the investigation. It’s part of the healing process, it’s important for establishing trust and credibility, and it’s important to put things into context for people.
On that day I found myself in front of the largest group of press that I had ever seen assembled in person. I’m not sure any amount of experience can prepare you for the barrage of questions and pressure that comes in one of those environments. It’s times like that when I think back to an old adage a pastor and teacher taught me about leadership and responsibility so many years ago: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
People have remarked to me over the past several weeks how calm I seemed at the press conferences, and they have asked how I could remain that way. To me, it’s a funny thing, because in all honesty, that’s just my personality. Usually a negative part of my personality. It’s something I have had to work hard to lessen over the years because many people thought my stoic demeanor hid an unfriendly person inside, when in fact it was just me being reserved and observant.
I did not appreciate what it meant to people, and how frightened they had been that day, until the days and weeks afterward when I would go out to the normal places I go to every day, like Starbucks for my morning cup of coffee, my dry cleaners or the local market where my wife and I shop. People that would normally smile and say hello when they see me (because they know I’m the chief) suddenly wanted to talk and pass along their appreciation for what we did that day, and they wanted to express how they felt and how proud they were to have professionals representing them in law enforcement.
As bad and as tragic as a day like Dec. 2 can be, those days also present an opportunity. Those days tend to bring people together; they galvanize communities; they reset priorities and perspectives. And they allow communities to see that their professional public safety providers care about them and truly want to serve to make life just a little better for their communities.
Chief Jarrod Burguan has been with the San Bernardino Police Department since January 1992. Burguan has earned a Masters Degree in Management from the University of Redlands, and POST Command College (Class 53). He also holds a POST Management Certificate.