Report Finds Communication Flaws in Police Response to 2018 Mass Shooting

An internal probe of the police response to the 2018 mass shooting in Southern California found gaps in communication between responding agencies.

In this 2018 file photo, firefighters raised a U.S flag outside Los Robles Hospital in the city of Thousand Oaks to honor Sgt. Ron Helus, who was killed by the gunman who opened fired inside the Borderline Bar & Grill. (Photo courtesy of Lourise Hodges)

VENTURA, Calif. (CN) — Law enforcement’s response to a deadly 2018 mass shooting at a Southern California bar was plagued by poor communication between agencies, according to a Ventura County Sheriff’s Department report released Wednesday.

The crowd of over 250 patrons inside the Borderline Bar and Grill, a western-style establishment in Thousand Oaks, California, was dotted with students on the evening of Nov. 7, 2018. It was College Night.

The evening at the popular, country music-themed dance venue and bar 40 miles north of Los Angeles should have played out as it had numerous other nights. But it didn’t.

People’s lives were abruptly shattered that night after 28-year-old Ian David Long entered Borderline and began firing his semi-automatic handgun at bar staff and patrons.

The shots set off panicked attempts to flee the establishment, with people breaking through windows using bar stools and hiding in the building’s attic as a smoke bomb set off by Long obscured the terrifying scene.

Two officers entered the bar armed with rifles and were immediately ambushed by Long, sparking a short, heavy gun battle. 

Authorities later revealed that one of the officers who died from injuries sustained in the gun fight — Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus — was killed by the bullet from a fellow responding officer with the California Highway Patrol.

Twelve people, including Helus, were killed in the shooting, plus the gunman who killed himself.

A CHP commander told reporters the next month that both Helus’ death and the tragic, violent nature of the mass shooting underscored the complex circumstances officers had to navigate through.

A 79-page “after action report” released Thursday by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged that complexity but said law enforcement lacked sufficient command presence on-scene and was plagued by communication issues.

As emergency calls flooded police lines after the shooting, there was a communications “breakdown” in the call dispatch center that delayed activation of additional law enforcement support, the report said.

“The increased number of phone calls caused a delay in authorizing units to respond from other stations and the request for resources, such as SWAT, to the scene,” the report said. “The dispatch supervisor sent an e-mail alert to off-duty dispatch staff requesting they respond to the dispatch. Due to the late hour, many dispatchers had gone to bed for the night and did not see the e-mail.”

The report noted that a lack of a visible police command post led to an uncoordinated response.

An unnamed police sergeant arrived on scene after Sgt. Helus but took a position that left them outside the view of many officers and unable to properly coordinate the response.

“In the minutes after Sergeant Helus’ entry, command and control were not established and little beyond containment was provided,” the report said. “By remaining on the perimeter in a position of containment, the second supervisor had a limited view of the incident and therefore a reduced level of situational awareness. By failing to establish a command post and take control, the leadership on scene was unable to absorb and evaluate all of the information in a comprehensive way.”

As numerous radio transmissions came in, noise levels in the dispatch center were so high that a deputy’s broadcast that Helus “was down,” meaning he had been shot, was not relayed to the VCSD dispatch.

The report recommended law enforcement agencies set up an automated system for activating additional police support and having a staff member dedicated to coordinating radio communication. 

The report, which was prepared by VCSD Captain Eric Buschow, said authorities could not identify a motive for the attack.

“Efforts to pinpoint either a triggering mechanism or a time frame when the suspect put his plan in motion presented a challenge,” the report said. “We will likely never know the true motivation behind the attack.”

The report noted that the VCSD will work to adopt the numerous recommendations in the report and has already implemented some measures such as creating the Incident Management Teams who coordinate resources for a police response.

“The shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in November 2018 was a tragic event that has had lasting effects felt beyond the boundaries of Thousand Oaks and Ventura County,” the department said in a statement released with the report. “As with any major incident, it is important that we look not only at what occurred, but how we can better prepare and respond to similar situations in the future. As always, our thoughts are with the victims and the families of those who were there that night.”

The shooting prompted California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a 2019 bill package expanding gun violence restraining orders and rules limiting residents from buying more than one semiautomatic rifle in a month.

The gun violence restraining order bill — also called a red flag law — was sponsored by Ventura County law enforcement officials who said new rules would revamp the state’s mechanism for getting guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous by the courts.

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