Howard County officials sharing lessons learned from Columbia mall shooting

COLUMBIA, Md. - It was almost three months ago.

Three months since Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson were shot and killed.

Three months since Darion Aguilar chose shotgun shells to do his screaming.

Three months since Columbia had to settle into a new normal.

"Do you really feel it can happen in your community?” Howard County Police Chief William McMahon rhetorically asked. “I don't know but it happened in our community and we are as any town USA as you can be."

McMahon leads the police department of the any town that is the latest chapter in an increasingly alarming American narrative.

The shooting at The Mall in Columbia shattered the 'it can never happen here' defense of yet another suburb, but it was never a viable one for McMahon's department.

Others like him warned it could happen, and he and his department heeded it. 

"We pulled a playbook off the shelf on January 25th at 11:15 that we had been building for many, many years," he said.

McMahon's department was ready because others warned they should be.      

The active shooter scenario is now a thing, a threat police prepare for by learning from the tragedies before them from the people that experienced them.

"Speakers included the chief from Aurora Colorado who dealt with the mall shooting; some folks who dealt with Sandy Hook shooting and a couple others. So, there were things that they talked about that they learned during their incidents that, as I was riding to the scene that day, were certainly going through my mind saying, ‘we gotta make sure we do this, we gotta make sure we take care of that.’ "       

But what the police department knew exactly how to do was secure the mall.

Howard County Police and mall officials have had a relationship going back almost seven years. SWAT teams had practiced active shooter scenarios, specifically in the food court.

But the real thing, advancing slowly with guns drawn through tables of half-eaten lunches and empty chairs was altogether different and eerie.

"When you talk to the SWAT officers and patrol officers that were doing those tasks, it very much was like training.  The only thing they noticed was that it was very, very quiet.  In some of the training exercises, there was simulated noise and things like that. They said it was eerily quiet except for the music that was playing in the background," McMahon said.

The story would get even more eerie once it started to unravel.

It would be determined the shooter, Darion Aguilar had no particular reason to do what he did, where he did it or who he did it to.

The randomness of it is almost as disturbing as the rhyme and reason investigators did find.

Aguilar was fascinated by the Columbine shooting and carried out his act down to the exact minute, with the same kind of weapon and even posting a selfie online dressed seemingly as Columbine shooter Eric Harris.

The picture, which police refuse to release, shows Aguilar wearing a bandolier of ammo, tee shirt and cargo pants bloused out of his boots.

"So he took that picture in a dressing room mirror of himself and he posted the verbiage that he did at 11:14, and then he stepped out and shot Brianna and Tyler."

The mere copycat nature of what was once an unheard of crime is worth study in itself. Chief McMahon has become the most recent teacher.

He has been asked by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement entities to lecture on the shooting at The Mall in Columbia. He is now saying the things that may stick in the back of the next chief's mind.

McMahon isn't the only one

"We went from about 5,000 followers on Twitter to more than 20,000 followers in the first 24 hours," said Howard County Police Spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn.

Llewellyn has also been a recent headliner for the 'how to' on crisis communication.

She has spoken to the FBI at Quantico and at several other gatherings of public information officers.

Llewellyn and the department mastered the use of Twitter during the shooting, from using the social media platform to push a polar bear plunge one day to offering reliable, pertinent and timely information on a crisis the next.

It was a transformation, literally overnight.

"We really were building the plane as we flew it,” Llewellyn said, "We had worked in social media. We used social media, but we did not develop some specific strategy or plan. There was no manual to open that said in an active shooter situation how would we best communicate."

Llewellyn says she and the department quickly realized Twitter didn't just help disseminate information along with the media quickly -- she could actually speak with people trapped in the mall.

"While people were sheltered in place, huddled in the dark in locked store rooms and bathrooms and backrooms with their children and all they really knew is that shots had been fired inside the mall and they ran and sheltered...We were able to talk to them through Twitter. Our message to them was, ‘stay where you are. The danger has passed, but wait for our

officers to come take you out safely.’ That really reassured people in a time that was really otherwise very frightening for them." 

While at the same time changing the way people received information during such a high profile crisis, a noticeable shift Llewellyn is now busy teaching other groups.

She’s passing it forward, helping a city and its partners navigate a new reality that for an increasing amount of communities, is all too normal.

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