El Centro College Officials Reflect on the Dallas Police Shooting
The majority of the police shooting occurred on El Centro College’s campus.
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The July 7, 2016 shooting of Dallas police officers was a shocking event for the country.
Five officers were killed that day, making it the deadliest attack on law enforcement officers since the Sept. 11 attacks. Nine other officers were injured, including two El Centro College police officers.
The tragedy played out on the campus of El Centro College and the streets immediately surrounding it, leaving behind untold trauma and destruction for the campus and its community.
At Campus Safety Conference Texas this week, El Centro College officials walked attendees through the school’s response to the incident and reflected on lessons learned in a panel discussion.
“I think it’s important you hear from the folks that brought El Centro back from the tragedy and the challenges they faced,” Dr. Eric Coleman of the University of North Texas Department of Criminal Justice said to start the discussion.
Details of the Shooting
On the evening of July 7, 2016 people protesting police shootings of black men marched by El Centro’s downtown campus. In anticipation of the protest, El Centro College Police Chief Joseph Hannigan ordered his officers to stay inside campus buildings to avoid engagement with the protesters.
That night was the final week of the college’s first summer semester, meaning some classes were taking place when the shooting occurred.
The incident began when the shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, parked his SUV sideways on Lamar Street outside of El Centro’s east entrance.
“He got out and, we believe, engaged three Dallas police officers in a short conversation, then pulled his rifle and shot them,” Hannigan explained in the days after the shooting.
As police returned fire, Johnson shot out two El Centro glass doors in an attempt to gain entry into the building.
El Centro Police Cpl. Bryan Shaw and Officer John Abbott, stationed near the entrance, returned fire, denying Johnson entry. Johnson then ran around the corner to El Centro’s Elm Street entrance and killed Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Officer Brent Thompson to force his way into the building.
Once inside, Johnson ran up a staircase toward the library with officers in tactical pursuit.
“As soon as [Cpl. Shaw] opened the metal door to enter the stairwell, he was met with a round of gunfire [from Johnson],” Hannigan explained. “About eight or nine shots were fired at him as he backed out of the stairwell.”
Johnson then ran through the library to a window and continued firing at police officers on Elm Street.
“He was shooting at anything that moved,” Hannigan remembered.
Police began closing in on Johnson’s position in the hallway, so Johnson barricaded himself in a room that contained the computer servers for the college, where police attempted to negotiate with him for more than four hours.
Eventually, Dallas Police Chief David Brown approved sending in a remote controlled bomb disposal robot armed with a pound of C4. Johnson saw the improvised bomb coming and shot at it, but died in the explosion.
“After reviewing body cams of my people, I was extremely proud of my guys,” Hannigan said. “And we grew a better relationship with the Dallas Police Department and DART officers. We had 200 officers in the building but everyone was working as one, using hand signals and communicating in unison… There’s no doubt in my mind that [the officers’] charges saved lives.”
Challenges in the Emergency Response to the Shooting
The C4 explosion destroyed the campus’s servers, crashing the school’s website and affecting emergency communications.
“The server situation meant I had to make the decision that social media was going to be our main form of communication,” El Centro College Director of Marketing and Communications Priscilla Staley said. “So we made it clear we’d use that channel to provide updated information. That kind of calmed the media frenzy.”
Because it was the week of July 4, many El Centro administrators were on vacation. When first responders requested blueprints of the campus, administrators now working remotely realized they didn’t have a digital version of the blueprints to send along.
Another challenge was identifying which students were in the building during the shooting. El Centro used multiple scheduling systems, but one was based on-campus in a location administrators couldn’t access at the time. The other system hadn’t been synced regularly, and some schedules were out of date.
“The lesson we learned was to make sure we had redundant systems in place to be able to manage [schedules] whether we were on campus or not,” El Centro College President Jose Adames said.
As students fled and were evacuated, they left their ID cards, phones and keys in the building, meaning many of them were unable to contact relatives or get into their apartments or cars.
False media reports also added to the confusion.
“If you watched the event unfold in the media, nothing you saw was accurate,” President Adames said.