By Mark Colborn | October 6, 2017
On the night of July 7, 2016, an unspeakable crime was directed at the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police, by what was later to be determined a lone coward who took five officers’ lives with a high-powered rifle. In the wake of that crime, allow me to reflect on events and some lessons learned from that night.
First, I can personally attest that when the gunfire started, I saw many men and women wearing blue uniforms run toward the sound of gunfire, while everyone else scattered away from it. I was able to see all of this while flying down between tall buildings, with a 20-kt tailwind, trying to put an overloaded helicopter (a Bell Helicopter 206B3 Jet Ranger) in a position that would enable my tactical flight observer to locate the shooter(s) with our Nightsun searchlight.
This all occurred in the heart of downtown Dallas at twilight, at the base of the Bank of America building, the tallest in the city. Sound echoed off tall buildings in all directions. This made it very difficult to determine where gunfire was actually coming from. This is most likely the reason for the initial reports of multiple shooters at various locations and elevations.
A group of protesters met at a small park next to the Bank of America building around 6:30 p.m. These individuals were protesting alleged police misconduct against civilians in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and other U.S. cities. Initially, about 50 people assembled at the park. We circled overhead for about 20 minutes to ensure that there were no problems, then flew back to our hanger at Dallas Executive Airport. About an hour later, the protesters started marching east on Commerce Street, and we were called back to the location. Much to our chagrin, we jumped into our non-air-conditioned helicopter and lumbered back into the stifling hot and humid Texas air.
The crowd, which we estimated had grown to about 500 people, marched east to Harwood Street, turned north one block, then marched west on Main Street to Record Street. Eventually, the group assembled at the President John F. Kennedy Memorial near the Old Red Courthouse for final speeches. The march was peaceful, and protesters had, for the most part, followed the rules outlined in their protest permit. After about 15 minutes, it became clear that the protest was over, and protesters started heading for their cars. I was beginning to relax a little, thinking we might get through the event without any problems. The time was 8:58 p.m. local time, the sun had set, and it was twilight.
My initial reaction when I heard the “Shots fired” call on the radio and saw everyone scatter was that some idiot (perhaps a gang member) fired some shots into the air to scare the crowd. How incredibly naive that initial thought turned out to be.
It is very hard to plan for what happened. As a police officer, you just have to react. Our officers did react, and they reacted heroically. Initially, the scene was crazy and very confusing. People were running in all directions, and voices on the police radio were unintelligible.
As the pilot, I had to deal with air traffic control and avoid scenic dinner flight airplanes and two news helicopters in the immediate area. The amount of crew coordination that came into play at this point was huge. It got really busy trying to listen to multiple radios at once. To make matters worse, both of our camera systems were out of service. There had been no money in the budget nor parts in the system to fix them, and that further hindered our effectiveness.
This incident sparked a city-wide “assist officer” call, and I hope never to hear another. The initial gun battle lasted about five minutes. The shooter was wounded and retreated into the north entrance of El Centro College.
As we circled the college and the Bank of America building, red and blue lights converged on downtown Dallas from every direction. I watched as two squad cars sped in the opposite direction, one north on Stemmons Freeway toward Parkland Hospital (coincidently taking the same route the limousine carrying President Kennedy took in 1963), the other east on Ross Avenue toward Baylor Hospital. They had severely injured officers on board, and not waiting for a rescue squad always means their situation is dire.
As usual, communications were a mess. Officers responding from all seven patrol divisions were not switching to the event channel (Channel 12) because the dispatchers were relaying only the assist location. Officers responding from the division within which the incident was located (Channel 1) were staying on that channel and not switching to the event channel. It would have been a lot easier if everyone had been working on one channel.
The confusion stretched well into the night. We continually received incorrect reports of multiple snipers in parking garages or on roof tops. The incorrect reports were repeated, so they were accepted as fact, even though the reports couldn’t be confirmed by anyone on the scene. Then the media started reporting the incorrect reports, which only added to the confusion. In fact, three hours later, the media was still reporting that a suspect, after being involved in a gunfight with police, was still barricaded in a parking garage. Actually, the suspect was inside El Centro College and had never run into, or through, the parking garage next door.
Since we were running low on fuel, we were relieved by a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) helicopter. Its crew on duty that night heard initial news reports of what was transpiring and responded without being asked. We returned to our hangar for fuel.
A synopsis of the situation (including any updated description of suspects, their locations or other information) would have been very useful. Every news station was live by this time, and while in the moment, it’s easy to forget that what is being broadcast on the news may not be and most likely is not correct. If this were ever to happen again, I would telephone the command post at the first opportunity because correct information was not being put out over the radio. The reason for this is obvious: anyone with a “Five-O” app in his or her cell phone or a $50 scanner can monitor our unsecured radio frequencies. This discourages the sharing of information on the radio. As pilots, and not supervisors, we are not issued city-provided pagers or cell phones that receive situation reports. We also do not have a portable data terminal in our helicopter. So essentially, unless we get updates over the radio, we are out of the loop.
After a short break, we jumped back into the air and flew toward downtown. We were diverted to the Texas State Fair grounds to pick up a SWAT sniper waiting in a parking lot. After the DPS helicopter had relieved us on scene, they asked Love Approach to impose a one-mile temporary flight restriction (TFR) around the center of downtown Dallas. It was an idea that I hadn’t thought of. Love immediately imposed one, and we no longer had to worry about media choppers and dinner flights in the immediate airspace.
Asking for a TFR is a controversial decision and could have First Amendment ramifications. Having once moonlighted as a news helicopter pilot, I am sensitive to the right of the media to share the same airspace and freely report the news. Unless the video they stream back to the station compromises officer safety, I feel significant justification is needed to exclude airborne news crews from the area. Since we didn’t have a working gyro-stabilized, long-lensed camera system on board, the news crews would not have been able to assist us in locating the shooter(s).
We stayed on the scene for another four hours, taking turns with DPS Helicopter 101 while SWAT negotiated with the shooter barricaded inside El Centro College. We kept constant watch on roof tops and open parking garages looking for any additional snipers. Several hours into the event, we received the news that four, then five, of our brothers in blue had died. It was like getting sucker-punched in the gut.
Negotiations with the suspect continued until about 2:30 a.m local time. He repeatedly lied to negotiators, asked how many cops he had killed and threatened to kill any more officers who approached. A SWAT officer suggested the use of a bomb disposal robot rigged with explosives. Our chief, feeling all options had been exhausted, chose this latter option.
President Donald Trump had visited Dallas during his presidential campaign. Our police officers did a great job handling the visit and dealing with the anti-Trump and anti-capitalist protests. I was really proud of them. On the evening of July 7, when all the protesters who were yelling “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” (and the false Ferguson narrative of “Hands up, don’t shoot”) were running away from the gunfire, I saw hundreds of blue uniforms running toward that same gunfire. I also saw several officers splayed out on the ground near their squad cars. It was the most horrifying situation I’ve witnessed in my 30 years with our department.
As members of the helicopter crew flying overhead, we didn’t do anything particularly special or heroic that evening. The real heroes are the five brothers down on the street we lost: Dallas P.D. Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Patrick Zamarripa and Sgt. Michael Smith and DART Officer Brent Thompson. Nine other police officers were wounded that evening, as well as two protesters. The incredible heroism I witnessed that night renewed my pride in our department and renewed my faith in, and absolute need for, our chosen profession.
Mark Colborn is a senior corporal and instructor pilot for the Dallas Police Department Helicopter Unit and a retired chief warrant officer 4 and UH-60L Blackhawk standardization instructor pilot for the Texas Army National Guard. He also builds and flies multi-rotor unmanned aircraft systems and closely follows the legal and moral implications of integrating these machines into the aviation community for R&WI.