KUSA – Theirs aren’t exactly household names, but I wouldn’t argue with you if you felt they should be.
While 1,200 people ran out of Aurora’s Century 16 movie theater on July 20, 2012, they – along with dozens of other police officers – ran in.
Mike Hawkins. Gerry Jonsgaard. John Gonzales. James Waselkow. Stephen Redfearn. Jason Oviatt. Bryan Butler. Jon Marek.
Until now, their story has never been told in such a public way.
Recently, the eight officers decided it was finally time to share what they went through that night and what they continue to go through to this day.
Some are doing ok.
Some have largely moved on.
A few haven’t.
All eight said they wanted to talk on behalf of the rest of their colleagues who still aren’t ready to talk to the public about their story.
Let me let you in on why I’ve been so interested in that.
Five years ago, my assignment was to cover the theater shooting from just outside University of Colorado Hospital.
I learned pretty quickly that what had transpired that night was nothing short of remarkable.
In about a half hour, 23 patients showed up to that hospital’s ER with all sorts of horrific gunshot wounds.
“Every patient who showed up with a pulse, left with a pulse,” the nurses and doctors there liked to say.
Twenty three patients.
“And only three came by ambulance,” a hospital spokesperson told me.
The rest came in the back of police cars.
It was a revelation that defied what I had thought for years.
When there’s a mass shooting, ambulances are simply going to show up and take people to hospitals en masse.
Not in this case.
There are variety of reasons why it didn’t happen on July 20, 2012.
A number of ambulances couldn’t maneuver though the crowded parking lots.
There was still worry of a second shooter.
It’s a bit complicated.
Yet what the officers did that night was not complicated at all.
They simply loaded up patient after patient into police cars.
It was a decision that undoubtedly saved lives.
A year after the attack, photojournalist Chris Hansen and I put together an hour-long special called “After Aurora” that documented the unorthodox evacuation of patients from the scene.
It also discussed the importance of training police officers on simple, live-saving techniques in the event they were thrust into the middle of a mass shooting.
We spoke to medical staff, patients, and experts on the subject from around the country.
But, thanks to a gag order on the criminal case, we were never able to talk to the police officers who actually coordinated the evacuation.
Since then, I’ve always wanted to follow up with the officers when the time was right.
Thankfully, now the time is indeed right.
What the members of the Aurora Police Department did that night inside the Century 16 was never taught or game-planned in training sessions.
(It is now, however. Thanks, in large part, to the work of the Aurora Police department.)
What they did was skilled improvisation.
From day one of this story, I have tried to advance it beyond the grotesque and shocking and into the realm of lessons learned.
This, I believe does so, simply because it documents the humanity of the police officers who responded to the unthinkable.
It’s easy to think of police officers as nothing more than police officers.
They’re so much more to them than that.
Sgt. Mike Hawkins calls his actions that night a “horrific privilege.”
On one hand, he’s horrified by what he saw.
On the other, he feels a sense of pride by what he and his fellow officers accomplished.
Yet he, like a number of his fellow officers, still feels the burden of the former.
“I wouldn’t wish [this] on anybody,” he told us.
“It will always be a part of [us], for better or for worse. I’m trying to look at the ‘for better’ aspect of this.”
It’s part of the reason why, I believe, they decided it was finally time to talk about this.