On Wednesday, July 18, 1984, a 41-year-old unemployed welder and security guard named James Huberty left his house, telling his wife he was going “hunting humans.” Huberty and his wife had a history of domestic violence. A short time later, at about 4 p.m., Huberty entered a McDonald’s restaurant in the San Ysidro area of San Diego, Calif., and opened fire. He was armed with an Uzi carbine, a Browning High Power pistol and a Winchester model 1200 shotgun. For 77 minutes, Huberty methodically walked the aisles, killing and injuring victims ranging in age from 8 months to 74 years old. Even young children riding their bikes outside the restaurant and a fire truck became targets of opportunity for the deranged Huberty. By the time the incident ended, Huberty had fired more than 251 rounds, killing 21 people and wounding 19 others, making this killing spree one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
One of the first officers on scene, Michael Rosario, was fired at by Huberty. Rosario was a member of the San Diego Police Department’s Primary Response Team (PRT), which was the on-duty SWAT detail, consisting of five officers and one sergeant. Within 20 minutes of the first call to police dispatchers, the McDonald’s was surrounded by officers, a command post had been established, and a full callout had been initiated for San Diego PD’s SWAT team. Meanwhile, Huberty’s shooting continued inside the restaurant. The PRT/SWAT had taken over the inner perimeter from patrol officers by 4:45 p.m. Victims who escaped through the back door reported that there were likely additional live victims inside and that the suspect had multiple weapons.
At 5:04 p.m., SWAT snipers were given a “green light,” authorizing them to shoot the suspect if the opportunity presented itself. This was easier said than done. Visibility into the building was severely hampered by a combination of sunlight, tinted windows and spider-webbed cracks from the previous gunshots. Huberty fired at a SWAT officer who returned fire without
success. The SWAT commander was still en route to the scene when he rescinded the green-light order that had been authorized by on-scene supervisors. Upon his arrival at the scene, the SWAT commander reissued the green light order at 5:13 p.m. Neither sniper team had been able to spot Huberty yet, so the changing orders alone didn’t result in missed opportunities to stop the incident.
Finally, SWAT sniper Chuck Foster was able to identify and shoot Huberty from a nearby rooftop. SWAT then entered the restaurant, and paramedics followed shortly thereafter to begin the grim task of triage, treatment and transport of the wounded and dead.
A suit was later filed against the San Diego Police Department by the estates of some of Huberty’s victims claiming that officers waited too long to neutralize Huberty and rescue the victims, thereby failing to protect them. The 4th District Court of Appeals dismissed the suit on the grounds that no special relationship existed between officers and the victims, causing the danger to increase and, therefore, police couldn’t be held liable for failing to protect the victims.
One of the McDonald’s employees wounded that day was 17-year-old Alberto Leos. Shot in both arms, his right leg, stomach and chest while hiding in the kitchen area, he managed to crawl into a basement storage area. Once there, other victims in hiding tied shoelaces around his arms and legs to stop the bleeding. Motivated by his experience, Leos would later become a San Diego police officer and sergeant.
Patrol officers must act decisively when people are being killed. Response to active shooters had changed dramatically since the Texas Tower incident where patrol officers took the initiative to neutralize the threat. By the time of the McDonald’s massacre, some agencies had begun to depend on SWAT for response to such incidents. Unfortunately, SWAT won’t arrive fast enough in most situations. This practice of relying on a SWAT response continued until the Columbine massacre in 1999, which led to significant changes in training and procedure for active shooter incidents. Ironically, Columbine didn’t last as long and involved fewer victims than the McDonald’s shooting.
Initial information will be conflicting and confusing. Rarely, if ever, do initial reports of an incident of this scale include accurate and complete information. The number of suspects, their descriptions and weapons and the circumstances (hostage situation, barricaded gunman, active shooter) may be unclear. A single gunman armed with multiple styles and calibers of firearms may give the impression of multiple shooters based on appearance and sound.
Trust on-scene personnel to make critical decisions. Train your personnel and then trust them to make good decisions in the heat of battle. The on-scene personnel are seeing, hearing and smelling things that can’t be described to a commander over the radio in the midst of the action. A good plan initiated immediately by on-scene personnel may be better than a great plan enacted 20 minutes later once commanders arrive.
Four of the five principles of the Below 100 Initiative apply to this incident. Watch your speed usually means “slow down,” but may also mean “speed up” if people are dying and action has to be taken. Move as fast as you can while still retaining the ability to accurately engage targets. However, you can’t help anyone if you don’t get there, and reckless arrival doesn’t equal survival. Wear your vest: Soft body armor should be worn all the time, but it won’t stop rifle-caliber ammunition. Bail-out bags are great, but a hard armor plate carrier can be quickly donned over your uniform and soft body armor, providing both greater protection and the ability to carry additional ammunition and medical supplies. W.I.N.: What’s important now is to save lives! Neutralize the threat, triage, treat and evacuate victims and secure the crime scene. Remember: Complacency kills: Whether you work in an agency of one officer or 40,000 officers, an incident such as the McDonald’s massacre can happen in your jurisdiction. No area is immune despite recurring media interviews after such incidents where witnesses proclaim, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen here.” Don’t wait until the big one. Train now, and continue honing your response capabilities.
Lopez v. McDonald’s Corp. http://online.ceb.com/CalCases/CA3/193CA3d495.htm.
Roberts, C. Police Sniper. Pocket Books, New York, 1993.
San Ysidro massacre: July 18, 1984. www.signonsandiego.com/san-ysidro-massacre.
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