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The Nevada Independent

In wake of shooting, sheriff balances public information, police interests

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley
Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
Criminal JusticeLocal GovernmentOctober 1

There would be no questions today.

It was a Friday afternoon, a dozen days after a gunman shattered windows and then lives in a shooting rampage that left dancing concertgoers dodging bullets on the Las Vegas Strip. And here was Clark County’s sheriff, Joe Lombardo, at the podium again. Cameras broadcasting live stared back at him.

He gave his name, an obligatory yet largely unnecessary ritual at this point. The 54-year-old lawman unwittingly became a household name in the aftermath of the deadliest shooting in modern American history. What that also meant: He bore the brunt of the public’s criticism as timelines changed and the gunman’s motive remained elusive even as he felt personally responsible for explaining to the world what had happened.

“Do you think I enjoy standing up there in the press conference and everybody in the world knowing who I am?” Lombardo said days earlier during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “No, I don’t enjoy that. I wish I could remain in the shadows and do what I do as the head of the agency, but that’s unfortunately not the way it is.”

But the public — and, by proxy, the media — clamored for more information about a shifting timeline that had raised more questions than answers.

Wearing his khaki-colored Metro Police uniform, Lombardo sought to put the factual discrepancies to rest. He read prepared remarks clarifying the sequence of events that occurred moments before the shooter fired upon a crowded country music festival, killing 58 people and wounding 546 others.

Then Lombardo pivoted to the information he really wanted to share: The police sergeant and other first responders who triaged at least 50 gunshot victims, using whatever materials they could find as tourniquets. The officers who stood sentinel over the deceased that night, never letting them be alone. The officer recovering from a bullet wound to his shoulder who yearned to be back at work.

He uttered another officer’s name and swallowed hard.

“Excuse me for my emotion,” he said.

The fatigue, stress and grief had finally caught up with the leader of the Las Vegas police department. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak and FBI Special Agent Aaron Rouse put their hands on the teary-eyed sheriff’s shoulders. Lombardo finished his thought — commending an officer who broke his leg but remained on scene that night — and paused, his head bowed.

“So at this point,” he said, looking back toward the cameras, “I’m going to thank the community. I’m going to thank you for letting me be your sheriff and ‘Vegas Strong.’”

The emotional sheriff walked out, ignoring the shouted questions directed his way.

October 1

That Sunday night had promised to be nothing more for Lombardo than a night out at a Venetian steakhouse with a few friends.

But his phone started ringing in the middle of dinner. And it kept ringing. Something must be up, he thought, completely unaware of what was unfolding two miles south on the Strip.

He dialed back the last caller, who happened to be former Sheriff Bill Young.

A panicked Young answered the phone. Minutes earlier, the former sheriff’s 22-year-old daughter had called him, pleading for help as bullets fell around her. She was on the ground, near the stage. Young told his daughter to run — as far and as fast as she could — away from the concert venue.

“It was the most terrifying call I ever got in my life,” he said.

Young’s natural instinct was to call his best friend and the current sheriff, Lombardo. It all happened so fast that Lombardo didn’t even know about the shooting yet.

“I told Joe, ‘You’re gonna get some calls,’” and then hung up, Young said. He wanted to keep the sheriff’s line open as well as his own: He still hadn’t heard back from his daughter.

Flowers lay on the ground near the Route 91 Festival grounds on Tuesday, October 3, 2017 following a deadly shooting that took place late Sunday night. Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent

Lombardo jumped into his car and sped down Las Vegas Boulevard — red lights flashing and sirens blaring — to the site of the music festival across the boulevard from the Luxor and kitty-corner from the Mandalay Bay. He hoped things weren’t as bad as they sounded.

“We’re so used to the calls. We’re so used to, hey, well, it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s never as bad as it sounds when it comes out, but in this case it was the opposite,” Lombardo said.

By the time he arrived, he said it was “basically chaos” trying to get people away from the festival grounds. But Lombardo observed that while festival-goers were fleeing the concert site, all of his officers were running directly into the fray.

One of the first officers to respond to was 22-year-old Brady Cook, who was shot below the right shoulder while working with a team of officers to try and figure out where the shooting was coming from and form a strike team. It was his second day on the job.

“I’ve seen unfortunate things occur across the United States, especially during natural disasters, where cops integrate themselves and worry about themselves and getting supplies for themselves and evacuating with the rest of the citizenry,” Lombardo said. “In this case, it was the complete opposite.”

Lombardo went to University Medical Center next, after determining officers were handling everything at the festival site appropriately. It was chaos there, too, he said.

At the time, the sheriff had no knowledge that 34-year-old Metro Officer Charleston Hartfield was fatally shot at the concert, which he had been attending off duty. But hospital staff told him on-duty officers who had been injured were stable, so he got out of their way and headed to police headquarters, where he would spend all night commanding operations.

Even then, Lombardo said he didn’t have a complete understanding of the scope of the incident. It took time to gather the basic facts: the number of attendees, information about the suspect and the number of people police believed to be injured. But Lombardo strongly believes in empowering officers to take responsibility upon themselves — not wait for top-down directions — and that’s exactly what he says everyone did that Sunday night.

“We know what to do in a critical time, where to respond, and what our roles are, and that was immediate, that everybody knew or paid attention and we had all our key components in place by the time I got engaged,” Lombardo said.

It’s a message the sheriff has been communicating to the department for years, even before he assumed the top post at the department. Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway recalled how Lombardo emphasized that everyone in the agency is a leader while teaching a portion of a leadership class six or seven years ago.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a civilian working in records,” Callaway said. “Like with Officer Cook, it doesn’t matter if you’re fresh out of the academy, two days on the job, you are a leader. The people on that call are looking to you for assistance.”

Once the department realized the situation was static and that the shooter had died, their concern turned to whether there were any additional suspects, Lombardo said. The incident had spawned calls from a number of hotels up and down the Strip — Tropicana, Luxor, New York-New York and Aria — with reports of other shooters or, in one case, a possible bomb threat.

Officers were quickly dispatched to the various locations where they determined all the reports were false. But Metro was prepared for the possibility of multiple shooters, in large part because department leaders had trained in Mumbai in the wake of the 2008 attacks, in which 10 members of a terrorist organization carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks at different locations across four days.

“What we learned, that you don’t have an overconvergence of resources, not everybody goes to the same location in case there are more than one area of concern for other shooters, and it was comforting to hear on the radio that that was taking place,” Lombardo said.

Back at Metro headquarters, where a growing number of law enforcers and community leaders had assembled, Lombardo was on the phone, watching television reports and monitoring other information trickling in on the computer.

“He’s digesting all this information that’s being provided to him by dozens of individuals and making calls about what to do,” Sisolak, who was in the same room, said. “He was totally composed and totally never lost his perspective.”

In that command center is where Lombardo learned the initial death toll: 20 casualties and more than 100 injuries.

“I think the toughest moment was when I got the initial assessment of injury and people that had died,” he said. “I knew it was going to increase.”

A balancing act

Soon afterward, Lombardo shared that grim information with the world in his first of many news briefings about the mass shooting. It was the beginning of a delicate balancing act that earned him both criticism and some praise along the way.

Metro Police Sheriff Joe Lombardo gives a news briefing on the latest in the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.(Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The dilemma for a sheriff thrust into the national spotlight: How much does the public need to know — and when — during a complicated investigation involving thousands of witnesses and a gunman who apparently cloaked many aspects of his life in secrecy?

“The problem with me now is the news cycle is so short and fast that the zest for information is very cumbersome and, as you can imagine, an investigation of this magnitude takes some time and people need to understand that,” Lombardo said.

The sheriff said he opted to provide many details early, including some that later changed, to help put the community at ease and harness the power of the media, which he describes as a “force multiplier.” The decision led to some headaches for Lombardo as the department struggled to nail down a verified timeline of when the gunman, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, shot a Mandalay Bay security guard and opened fire on the festival.

Lombardo first told the public that the security guard, Jesus Campos, had interrupted the shooting, calling him a “hero.” Days later, the sheriff stepped to the podium again and revised that timeline: He said Campos actually had been shot at 9:59 p.m., a full six minutes before the gunman opened fire on the crowd.

MGM Resorts, which owns Mandalay Bay, cast doubt on that new timeline the following day, saying that it “may not be accurate.” Two days later, the company put out another statement saying that shots were fired at the festival site at the same time or within 40 seconds of the security guard radioing in that shots had been fired.

As the conflicting timelines created more questions — and conspiracy theories — all eyes were on Lombardo when he appeared before cameras Oct. 13. That’s when he corrected the timeline for the second time, saying he agreed with MGM’s sequence of events.

“There’s no conspiracy between the FBI, the LVMPD and the MGM,” he said that day. “Nobody is attempting to hide anything referencing this investigation.”

Lombardo’s willingness to share initial, albeit unverified, details in the early days of the investigation didn’t surprise those who have worked with him over the years. His former bosses and community leaders describe him as a transparent, brutally honest leader who cuts to the chase.

Callaway, from Metro, said Lombardo has striven to be transparent with the community as sheriff, whether that’s providing as much information as possible as quickly as possible about officer involved shootings or stepping up to defend his officers when he believes they were in the right, such as when police detained football star Michael Bennett. It was no different with the shooting, he said.

“It’s a perfect example of getting information that the public needs and deserves quickly and timely, but at the same time, understanding that you’ve got a huge investigation taking place and sometimes releasing information too quickly results in later down the road having to make corrections and how does that impact perception,” Callaway said. “I can tell just from speaking with him and his body language he’s been frustrated that some of the earlier information that he’s put out has come into question because he does in his heart want to balance that and it’s important to him.”

A shattered window on the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay is seen Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 where the shooter rain bullets on the Highway 91 concert . (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

But the timeline issue wasn’t the only source of criticism lobbed at the department. Members of the media, particularly during the second week of the investigation, posed questions about why it took officers so long to reach the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay and then breach the suspect’s room.

A Los Angeles Times story published after the Oct. 13 press conference illuminated some of the still-unanswered questions:

“But investigators’ latest account still does not resolve questions about why it took police 12 minutes to find the gunman’s hotel room when officers were already inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino when the attack began,” the newspaper story states. “Nor does the latest account answer why officers searched other floors in the hotel first if they had received a report from hotel security that the gunman was on the 32nd floor.”

Lombardo called criticism of his department “offensive” and said he was never intentionally providing misinformation. He reiterated his mantra at each news briefing — that information may and probably would change.

“That’s that balancing act we talked about — too much information — and I just can’t get caught up in that,” he said. “I’m comfortable looking myself in the mirror.”

Lombardo, who was the establishment candidate for sheriff in 2014, has worked over the last three years to earn the support of those who didn’t back him for sheriff, including employees of his own police department. The Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the union representing Metro officers, endorsed retired Metro Capt. Larry Burns in the race.

“There were other candidates that were more popular with the troops. Joe is a bit of a disciplinarian. Joe is a guy that’s pretty structured. He’s not really that back-patting, feel-good kind of guy,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic operative and adman in the state. “I think in the last couple of years and especially with this instance I think he’s unified Metro.”

MGM’s chairman and CEO Jim Murren downplayed any semblance of friction between the gaming company and sheriff in the days following the massacre. He said Lombardo has done a “remarkable” job in the wake of the Oct. 1 tragedy.

“When he was running for sheriff, we didn’t support him. We had another candidate in mind. Sheriff Lombardo won, we got to know him, and we realized after the fact that we had made the wrong decision,” Murren said. “We have the right person in the right place, and every year that goes by I feel more strongly about that."

Murren characterized his “many” conversations with Lombardo over the last three weeks as “professional, direct, succinct and collaborative.”

Lombardo’s predecessors, former sheriffs Bill Young and Doug Gillespie, said his leadership in the time of crisis proved he was the right man for the job.

“As far as I’m concerned, there was nobody who could have handled it any better,” said Young, whose daughter escaped from the shooting physically unharmed. “I think the world of the guy.”

Gillespie realized Lombardo’s potential when they served in the narcotics bureau together. When Gillespie started as captain, Lombardo was a narcotics sergeant who seemed to be the go-to person for questions and advice among his peers. Gillespie made a mental note of Lombardo’s budding leadership qualities on top of his hard work ethic, attention to detail and quick analytical skills.

Gillespie credits the engineer-turned-law enforcer with helping the department address problems with a faulty radio system, which led to Metro dropping one telecommunications provider and rolling out a new system in 2015.

“Boy, he was quick to be able to go into these meetings with radio company executives and technicians and be able to talk their talk and understand,” Gillespie said.

Underneath Lombardo’s matter-of-fact persona, the former sheriffs said, lies a caring, devoted man who juggled multiple hats — tactical mastermind, community leader and victim-consoler — in the days following the shooting.

“No good leader is stuck in one style of leadership,” Gillespie said. “They have the ability to freely move from one style to another, and I think he’s done a phenomenal job at that this past week.”

Jan Jones Blackhurst, a Caesars Entertainment executive and former Las Vegas mayor, described Lombardo as a calm and steady leader who’s also direct and adept at solving problems.

“All of those traits that you saw before this atrocity really manifested themselves on steroids during this,” she said.

Healing a department and community

As Las Vegas officers investigated and tried to prevent burglaries, auto thefts, assaults and homicides — all common crimes in urban areas — they all knew a larger threat loomed: a large-scale attack by terrorists or a lone gunman bent on inflicting mass carnage.

The entertainment mecca largely had been spared from tragedies that dotted the United States map, but Las Vegas wasn’t ever totally immune. In 2014, a couple killed two Las Vegas police officers at a pizza shop and one civilian in a Walmart. A year later, a vehicle driven by a 24-year-old woman plowed into pedestrians on the Las Vegas Strip, killing one person and injuring dozens of others.

But nothing, Lombardo said, could have prepared him for what happened on Oct. 1.

“You pray as the head of an agency that you never have to look at an officer’s picture on the wall, but let alone a critical an incident like this,” Lombardo said. “Do you think I’m proud of having the worst incident in American history happen on my watch and in my community? No, I’m not proud of that.”

Lombardo certainly wasn’t alone in navigating a man-made disaster. In the hours and days following the shooting rampage, his phone rang with messages of support from his peers nationwide who had experienced similar horrors in their own communities.

Sheriff Jerry Demings from Orlando called him, as did Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck. McDonnell and Beck offered resources.

Sheriff Joseph Lombardo, left, graduates new officers during Metro Police's graduation exercises on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. The class graduated 38 officers. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The bigger-picture message out of Orlando: Take care of yourself and your officers.

“People tend to let machismo get in the way, no matter if you’re male or female, and I think it’s important for our supervisors — and I did a video to the workforce to address this — to keep an eye on our folks and make sure that we offer them resources, both in the short term and in the long term,” Lombardo said.

The police department, for the most part, has handed off the shooting investigation to the FBI, but the tragedy will never be far from mind. The department on Friday laid to rest Hartfield, the off-duty officer killed at the music festival.

His portrait will be added to the department’s wall of fallen officers.

And yet a peculiar thing happened after the shooting: The number of people applying to join the force each day doubled, Lombardo said.

Maybe it was the courage displayed by officers or the generosity of the community that inspired the influx of applications. That’s up to recruiters to figure out. After all, it’s their job to ensure people truly want to enter the law enforcement profession.

As for Lombardo, he’s still in it for the long haul.

Naturally, the tragedy made him question his duration — but only momentarily — because Lombardo said he’s still seeking a second term as sheriff in 2018. There’s more he wants to do, including curbing violent crime, beefing up the ranks with more officers and improving mental health services at the local level.

“This weighs heavily on anybody and if they say it doesn’t, they’re lying,” Lombardo said. “But I still think I have a lot more to offer. I think I still have a lot of stamina left in me.”

Disclosure: MGM Resorts International ($350,000), Caesars Enterprise Services ($50,000), R&R Partners ($33,500), Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak ($1,000) and Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo ($500) are all donors to The Nevada Independent.


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