Taking action after a mass shooting

By Kenda Culpepper
TDCAA President & Criminal District Attorney in Rockwall County

Before COVID-19 struck, I had started working on an article about mass shootings. At the Elected Prosecutor Conference last December (gosh, that seems like years ago), TDCAA hosted a panel of prosecutors to discuss how they had reacted to traumatic mass shootings in their jurisdictions. It was a really impactful presentation, in part because each of us in the audience understood that something like that could happen in any of our localities, large or small, at any time. As a result, I wanted to create a written resource that would help a prosecutor jump into action if—and as soon as—any similar event happened in their own community.

            After talking to a number of people, I decided that the best format would be to hear straight from some of those prosecutors who have lived through tragedies in their jurisdictions. I posed questions to four of them who were willing to write about those experiences, and some of their answers appear below. We’ll hear from:

            Bobby Bland, District Attorney in Ector County. Bobby was the DA on August 31, 2019, when a killer shot multiple victims from a moving vehicle. During the multi-county mass shooting, seven people were killed and 25 people injured, including three police officers. The subject was killed by police in Odessa. (Following the recommendations of Dr. Matt Logan, a noted researcher on mass killers, I am not naming any of the shooters in these situations. We should all refuse to give these criminals additional notoriety.)

            Audrey Louis, 81st Judicial District Attorney. Audrey was the DA on November 5, 2017, when an assassin walked into First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and fatally shot 26 people and wounded 20 others. The subject fled the church after the shooting, was wounded by an armed citizen, and was then involved in a high-speed chase with two local residents. He died after the chase from his wounds and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

            Laura Nodolf, District Attorney in Midland County. Laura was the DA on August 31, 2019, during the same shooting as in Ector County. The perpetrator shot his first victim, a DPS trooper, during a traffic stop in Midland. He then drove to Odessa where he hijacked a United Postal Service vehicle, killed the driver, and continued to drive and shoot people until he was killed by law enforcement in the parking lot of an Odessa movie theater that falls within the city limits of Odessa and overlaps into Midland County.

            Jack Roady, Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County. Jack was the DA on May 18, 2018, when a 17-year-old student and executioner walked into a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, and began shooting. Eight students and two teachers were fatally shot, and 13 others were wounded. The subject was taken into custody at the scene. Capital murder and attempted murder charges are currently pending, as are federal charges.

            As you read, keep in mind that while these prosecutors’ narratives include much valuable information, this article is simply meant to be a starting place. We all understand that every event is different and needs open-minded reaction. It is clear, however, that it’s important to be ready to make initial decisions. (Well, as ready as anyone can be for such senseless and random acts.) What do you do first? How can you be valuable at the crime scene? How do you preserve evidence, collaborate with multiple law enforcement agencies, and deal with the public? How do you protect victims, families, your own staff? Here are their answers to these questions—and more.

When you get word of a shooting or other mass casualty event in your jurisdiction, what’s the first thing an elected prosecutor should do?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

The first thing you should do is authorize the DPS State Response Team to come into your jurisdiction to begin processing and collecting the evidence and securing the scene(s). In our case, we did this with the Texas Ranger Lieutenant over our district. Also, if this occurs outside of regular office hours, you should mobilize investigators and prosecutors so they are available to assist law enforcement during the investigation’s initial stages.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

Go to the scene immediately and send your office’s victim advocate too. It’s impossible for you to be fully apprised and understand the gravity and nature of what’s going on without being there. Be there to support and lend assistance to law enforcement as well as to the victims and their families.
            You are also at the scene to meet with and control what information is released and shared with the media. Discussions about that and coordination of press conferences is critical to keeping the public adequately informed without compromising the investigation.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

As an elected, the first step to take is to contact the Texas Rangers State Response Team. This is a specialized team prepared to deploy and manage mass events and large crime scenes. It takes some pressure off of local investigators and crime scene units and allows for a central agency to maintain direction over the investigation and evidence.

Jack Roady
Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County

It is important to establish immediately with the sheriff and the heads of any other responding law enforcement agencies who will be in charge of the scene so that the appropriate agency can coordinate operations on the ground. Likewise, the elected prosecutor should determine which prosecutor staff should respond to the scene and who should remain at the office to manage warrants, charging decisions, and investigative information as it comes in. As part of that process, I believe it’s important to have as many of the victim assistance coordinators from the prosecutor’s office on the scene as possible. If they are not available to your office, then identify any victim assistance personnel who might be responding to the scene from other agencies, and coordinate the victims’ contact through them.

What is one thing you wish you’d known before your jurisdiction’s shooting that you can pass along to other prosecutors?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

I wish I would have had an action plan for my staff to be available and report for duty as soon as it was practicable and safe. Since our mass shooting, I have instituted such a plan for all investigators and attorneys to report to the office or by phone with the First Assistant or elected prosecutor if they cannot be present.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

There is nothing to truly prepare you for these events, but having a close working relationship with law enforcement agencies is critical. There is no time or room for egos, and sometimes you may need to be the one to call folks out on that.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

I wish I had known about the Texas Health and Human Services Disaster Behavioral Health Services Unit. This unique team of individuals are experienced in providing psychological, emotional, and cognitive assistance to survivors and law enforcement as they respond and recover. If I had known such a team existed, we would have centralized a location for them to set up and start providing services in a more efficient and effective manner than we did. (Find information about it at hhs.texas.gov/about-hhs/process-improvement/behavioral-health-services/disaster-behavioral-health-services.)

How should prosecutors communicate with victims and their families?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

The mass shooting that occurred in Ector and Midland Counties was unique in that there were so many crime scenes and so many disparate victims experiencing separate events over an extended period of time. Furthermore, our shooter had been killed, so there would be no direct prosecution of these crimes. Therefore, in this situation, it was important to let the victims know we are available and that we can connect them with the help they need and Crime Victims Compensation. However, without a prosecution, there is a fine line that can be overstepped because the elected prosecutor cannot make any assurances for justice or guide them through the legal process other than to let them know we are there to help.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

Communication is key. Death notifications need to be done as soon as possible. For obvious reasons, you do not want next of kin to be notified by anyone other than law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office. Having clergy and counselors assist with death notifications is very beneficial, too.
            Then make sure your office talks to every victim or immediate family member to notify them of Crime Victims Compensation (CVC) and the expenses it will cover, including burial. We coordinated with local funeral homes and the Office of the Attorney General to get everyone’s CVC applications processed immediately. Victims’ lives are impacted forever, and following up with their needs and that of their families is ongoing, many times long after the end of any criminal case. Victims need someone they can rely on to provide accurate information and assistance.
            Also, the resources will come, and with those resources comes experience. FBI Victim Services offered tremendous help in coordinating the cleaning of the victims’ belongings, and the Red Cross provided immediate cash cards for victims to purchase necessities.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

I sincerely believe that this depends on your jurisdiction and the needs of constituents. For me, I was most helpful at the hospital where I spoke with the wife of the trooper who had been shot. I was also able to communicate with emergency room staff regarding injuries the victims sustained. This was critically important because until the gunman was deceased, I was unsure if we would be proceeding with capital murder, attempted capital murder, aggravated assault, or other charges. Regardless of the charge, I was prepared to make a swift and informed decision based on information relayed by law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Jack Roady
Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County

We should meet with victims as soon as possible—optimally on the day of the event, either at the scene or by visiting medical facilities if necessary—to establish personal rapport and connect them with victim assistance resources. I’ve learned that outside of answering specific questions, it’s best to provide only basic information at first because the victims and their families will have so much to process that day and in the days that follow.
            I also believe it was important to let our victims and their families know that our relationship would be ongoing, throughout the life of the case and beyond, and that they would always have easy access to me and my staff. At some point, it is also important to establish with the victims and their families the scope of information you will be able to share while the case is pending, along with an explanation as to why that scope may be very small. Our limited ability to share extensive details about the event with our victims and their families has proven to be a major challenge following the Santa Fe shooting.

How involved should the prosecutor be at the scene and during the investigation?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

In my opinion, either the elected prosecutor or a senior prosecutor should be at the scene as soon as possible. There will be federal, state, and local law enforcement present, and it is your duty to ensure that the scene is handled so it can be prosecuted effectively in state court. If the DPS State Response Team is on the way, then you will be prepared to match any resources the federal agencies can bring, placing the state in an equal position with the feds. The result is an investigation that benefits both federal and state prosecution.
            While at the scene of our crime, I talked to the federal prosecutors as well as my own prosecutors to ensure that any search warrants and all evidence collection was done in full cooperation of federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

Prosecutors should remain at the headquarters or hub of the operation. And if you leave, notify others where you’ll be. You are a legal resource for search warrants, witness issues, and the like and need to be available. Coordinating press conferences and what information will be shared is critical to ensure information is relayed in a way that’s meaningful and beneficial to the general public—without compromising the investigation or invading the victims’ privacy.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

When a mass event occurs in your jurisdiction, the public is going to look to the elected prosecutor and the head of local law enforcement for answers and comfort. As a result, you need to be engaged from the outset. I believe visiting the scene is the best way to gain an understanding of how the events took place. Even though I knew we would not have an active criminal prosecution because our shooter was deceased, I visited the multiple scenes so I could fully understand what transpired. This information has become crucial in developing a more defined strategic plan in case a tragedy like this occurs again.

Jack Roady
Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County

Prosecutors should be at the scene if at all possible and closely involved in the investigation that follows. Establish early on which agency will assume primary responsibility for the scene and follow-up investigation. Determine which federal agencies, if any, plan to be involved and make every effort to ensure that the fruit of the federal agency’s investigation will be available to the state and admissible in state courts. Make sure that a trusted local agency participates in the scene investigation and witness interviews along with any federal agency. State prosecutors may not have ready access to federal investigators and their reports by the time trial comes around, so it will be important that local investigators have personal knowledge of the scene, investigation, and evidence.
            Finally, coordinate with law enforcement leaders while still at the scene concerning the dissemination of information to the public. While a local prosecutor cannot stop others from coming to the scene to command a microphone and camera, it’s important to get agreement and establish boundaries on the release of information as much as possible.

What are some proactive things elected prosecutors can do now (before an event) that will make things run more smoothly if something happens in the future?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

Create a mass shooting action plan for the office and make sure all of employees understand it. It should include a provision that all staff contacts you or a senior member of the office as soon as something like this happens so that you can determine how to best help the investigation and victims.
            Contact the Ranger Lieutenant or supervisor now and give authorization ahead of time to bring the DPS State Response Team as soon as a mass shooting happens. Two weeks prior to the shooting in Ector and Midland Counties and two weeks after the Walmart shooting in El Paso, I gave authority to our Ranger Lieutenant to summon the response team immediately if something like this happened. Therefore, on the day of the shooting, one of my first calls was to our Ranger Lieutenant. He assured me that the team was already on its way because of my pre-authorization. As a result, federal, state and local authorities were able to work together in an efficient and mutually beneficial manner.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

Federal law enforcement agencies, Texas Rangers, local agencies, my office, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have monthly Crisis Management Response Meetings. Different agencies speak about topics relating to mass casualty and crisis practices. But just as importantly (if not more), we develop a strong working relationship with one another for a better coordinated response.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

First, make sure law enforcement knows that you want to be notified as quickly as possible. Second, if the Texas Ranger State Response Team may be necessary, either issue a letter stating that they have standing authority to handle mass events or get them on the phone as quickly as possible. Third, know your neighboring elected prosecutors and have their cell numbers handy. When it was apparent that the shooter in Midland was traveling to Ector County, I called Ector County DA Bobby Bland immediately to let him know what was coming his way so he could react appropriately for what happened in his jurisdiction. We decided immediately that there would not be a jurisdictional turf war but rather a collaborative effort if we needed to prosecute.

Jack Roady
Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County

Establish personal relationships of communication and trust with local and federal law enforcement leaders and federal prosecutors. If possible, meet with them long before an event occurs to plan out a coordinated response among as many agencies as will participate. Likewise, meet with local government leaders, including school districts, to develop a coordinated response plan.
            This early planning should also include an agreement as to how each entity will handle responses to public information requests. In the days and months following an event, these requests will likely be sent to the county, city, law enforcement agencies, and school districts. Establish a notification procedure so that the prosecutor’s office can intervene in any such requests to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of information, as such disclosure could compromise the case’s prosecution and the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

How do you, as a leader, care for staff and fellow law enforcement during such a high-stress event and the aftermath?

Bobby Bland
District Attorney in Ector County

You can take care of your staff and law enforcement by being available, patient, and understanding during these horrific times. While an elected prosecutor is accustomed to leading, when there is no case to be prosecuted, the role becomes one of support for first responders, staff, and survivors.

Audrey Louis
81st Judicial District Attorney

Prosecutors and their staff, much like law enforcement and first responders, have to be a fairly resilient group. But to suggest self-care after something like this isn’t important would be a disservice. We are a close-knit office and rely on one another for support. Sometimes that may mean just talking and working through things in our office, or it may mean a happy hour, birthday celebrations, lunches, or just true daily camaraderie. But additionally, particularly after the shooting, our office has developed a close working relationship with many of the counselors in the area. If anyone needs counseling, we have the resources available for it.

Laura Nodolf
District Attorney in Midland County

These events take a toll on your staff, law enforcement, and community more than you might realize. Make sure that everyone knows that there are counselors and professionals available for them to speak with. Let them know it’s OK to take some downtime and regroup. Also, if you know that one of your fellow elected prosecutors has experienced an event like this, be available to them. You may not be able to assist with an investigation or prosecution, but you do know what it is like to carry the weight of an office on your shoulders. Sometimes just knowing that someone is there if you need him or her makes a world of difference.

Jack Roady
Criminal District Attorney in Galveston County

In the days that followed the Santa Fe shooting, I did my best to stay in close contact with all of our staff who were working on the case, especially those who responded to the scene. Likewise, I tried to follow up with the responding officers whom I knew personally. Our office did not offer any formal counseling services outside of what was normally available through county resources. However, as much as possible, we sought to ensure that our staff members had the opportunity to process their responses to the event in their own ways and that they were not overwhelmed by stress or workload in the weeks that followed.

Conclusion

Many thanks to these four prosecutors who agreed to share some of their experiences. It could not have been easy re-living these tragedies, but I so appreciate their willingness to be a valuable resource for others across the state. If any lesson they learned helps another prosecutor in a future similar situation, it is well worth the time we spent in this endeavor. I hope this article can additionally be a resource, but I also sincerely pray that once you have read it, you will never need to reference it again.
            Stay healthy and safe in these uncertain times.