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Police Face Backlash Over Delayed Response To Orlando Shooting


We know more about how the Orlando Police responded to the mass shooting last month at the Pulse Nightclub thanks to documents just released by law enforcement agencies in the area. Dispatch logs and officer reports fill in some details about the timeline of that night, but a few nagging doubts remain, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Within hours of the massacre, Orlando Police were already facing questions about the amount of time it took them to make their final assault on the shooter. In fact, the very next day, their public information officer warned the police chief against letting media interview officers. In an email, she wrote, quote, "there are so many ways it can go sideways if that officer is asked difficult questions. Why did you wait three hours before going in - et cetera, et cetera," unquote.

STEVEN BARNETT: It just infuriates me.

KASTE: That's Steven Barnett, an ex-Marine in Georgia. He's one of the people who sent angry emails to Orlando Police about the apparent delay. He talked to us last week about why he's still upset.

BARNETT: You know, the SWAT team can go bust down a door on a drug dealer's house, but when there's a chance that there may be that one of them could actually get shot, then they stand around outside, plotting on, well, how's the best way to handle this? Let's talk to this guy, you know?

KASTE: The delay raises such strong emotions because we now know from 911 logs that during that time, wounded hostages were bleeding to death. But Orlando Police Chief John Mina says that wasn't as clear to him in the heat of battle.

CHIEF JOHN MINA: We knew there were injured people in there but to what extent now.

KASTE: He also points out that while the shooter was barricaded, police were very active clearing out the rest of the club, saving other potential victims and talking with the shooter by phone. And as they did that, the situation changed.

MINA: So we start receiving the information about the explosives.

KASTE: Mina says reports of bombs came both from the victims and the shooter. There were no explosives, but police had no way of knowing that at the time.

MINA: And so for us going right in through the bathroom door through the hallway where he was not an option because we believed that if that happened, he would either, you know, detonate or kill all the hostages that were in there with him.

KASTE: Steve Ijames is a retired police chief who's now one of the foremost experts on SWAT and hostage situations. He says a bomb in a confined space like a restroom would change things.

STEVE IJAMES: You quite possibly would kill everyone in the room by virtue of the overpressure if an explosion went off.

MINA: Ever since Columbine, police have been taught not to delay in challenging active shooters, to stop the dying as quickly as possible. But Ijames says that doesn't mean that rushing in is always the answer.

IJAMES: You would have to balance the likelihood of success for the others on behalf of the one or two or three that you think are bleeding, and there's no perfect answer to this question.

KASTE: What's not clear about Orlando is when the bomb threat became a factor. The earliest documented mention of potential explosives that we know of is 2:30 a.m. That's about 10 minutes after the shooter barricaded himself in the restroom. It comes from a newly released report by a sheriff's deputy from a neighboring county who just arrived on the scene.

Orlando dispatch logs, on the other hand, don't mention explosives until later, half an hour into the restroom standoff. Authorities have not yet released the details of their phone conversations with the shooter. When they do, we may be able to say whether police held off before or after they heard that there might be a bomb. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.