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Communication Lag Caused Reports of Multiple Temple Shooters

Rumors of multiple gunmen Aug. 5 at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin was brought on, in large part, by a delay in getting information to police officers, Police Chief John Edwards said.

I had the honor of participating in a Milwaukee Press Club panel discussion called "Lessons Learned From Oak Creek," which took a look at the Sikh temple shootings and the city's response.

The forum, held Tuesday at the , featured Mayor Steve Scaffidi, Police Chief John Edwards and Fire Chief Tom Rosandich. I was one of three journalists — John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel and Kathy Mykleby of WISN-TV the others — who asked a wide range of questions about what happened Aug. 5 and the days that followed.

Having the benefit of hindsight and more than three weeks to reflect, the forum provided many interesting thoughts and perspectives.

One of the more interesting tidbits, to me, was a delay between getting information gleaned from 911 calls to police officers on the ground during the initial minutes and hours of the shooting.

Some 911 calls came into the sheriff's office. The caller would explain his or her situation and what they were seeing, and the call would be transferred to the . Then, those callers had to explain their situation a second time.

But with the situation changing by the second, some calls were already outdated by the time police officers got the information.

"Some of the calls were coming from inside the temple from people who had cell phones, and they were saying, 'We're hearing shots,'" Edwards said. "By the time it's relayed to our dispatchers, who then get it out to the officers on scene, there's a delay. So, now (officers) are being told there's still shots being fired.

"Those officers don't hear anything, and they're wondering what's going on. So in their mind, there's still something going on inside that we can't hear."

I asked Edwards if this contributed to the reports of . Those reports turned out to be false, but in the chaos of those first few hours, rumors flew about multiple gunmen and hostages inside the temple.

"It's absolutely what did contribute to it," he said.

Wade Michael Page entered the temple about 10:25 a.m. before going back outside and firing at Police Lt. Brian Murphy, . More shots were fired between Page and Oak Creek police officers before Page was shot in the stomach (and later ).

People in the temple heard the gunfire outside, but couldn't see anything. In their minds, they thought more people were shooting, Edwards said. So they called 911 and reported more shooters.

"It compounds the confusion that's going on at the scene," Edwards said.

By the time a news conference began at 4 p.m. that day, authorities were confident that Page was the only shooter.

Still, there was a long period of time when people were not sure if more gunmen were inside or on the loose in the community, making a scary day that much scarier.

Delay in notifying families, too

Some other interesting notes from the forum:

- A few of the roughly 70 or so people who attended the forum were members of the Sikh community, and one of them asked why it took so long for families of victims to be notified.

Edwards said that by law, police are not allowed to touch victims once it's clear they have died. That responsibility belongs to the Milwaukee County examiner's office, and since it took several hours to clear the building, many families did not get official word until late that night.

- When Edwards said during a nationally-televised press conference that victims' information could be found on the city's website, the site crashed after getting some 10 million hits, according to Scaffidi. He credited the city's information technology department for getting the site back up within an hour.

Many relatives in India were trying to find out information about family members at the , Edwards and Scaffidi said.

- Edwards said investigators still have not interviewed Murphy because he is unable to talk. One of the shots Murphy took was in the neck area.

Greg in OC August 29, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Not a big fan of centralized 911. Seconds are important in emergency situations.

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