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Agencies pushed to limit in chaos of Little Rock club shooting, police records reveal

A Little Rock police car outside Power Ultra Lounge after a mass shooting occurred at the club (Photo: KATV)

Little Rock police officer Brandon Johnson was driving to a nightclub downtown where a mass shooting had just occurred when a white Dodge Charger speeding away from the club suddenly crossed in front of him.

“God dang,” he said, hitting the brakes. “God dang. Be advised,” he said over the radio, “I just had a white Charger going on Capitol [Avenue] eastbound blow the red light and almost hit me.”

Johnson, with his siren blaring, turned onto Sixth Street and drove toward Power Ultra Lounge, where 25 people had been shot in a barrage of gunfire during a rap concert. Three others had been injured as hundreds of people inside the club rushed for the exits; one of them broke through a second-story window and jumped to escape.

The dashboard camera in Johnson’s vehicle recorded the aftermath. Dozens of men and women, some of them shoeless, were in the street running away from the club or running back inside. Two people carrying an injured man by his arms and legs placed him in the backseat of a car and drove away. There were flashing police lights. And there was screaming.

“We got people running everywhere,” Johnson said as he approached.

Several of those shot were treated on scene with tourniquets and chest seals by police officers trained in military-style emergency care. Some club-goers used their private vehicles to drive the injured to hospitals. Though the waves of arrivals were unannounced, doctors sprung into action. Heart rates were stabilized. Bleeding was stopped.

Everyone -- “By the grace of God,” Mayor Mark Stodola said afterward -- survived.

But in the chaos of that day, July 1, mistakes were made, from the moments after the first 911 call went out at 2:27 a.m. to when the last officer left the crime scene nearly a day later. Ambulances were cleared to approach the club before police confirmed the gunfire had stopped, which could’ve placed medics in harm’s way. Later, someone took a blood-soaked car from inside the crime scene as a small number of tired officers stood watch, a breach that legal experts said could undermine cases against those charged in the shooting.

Police officers, who had overriding orders to secure the club and rescue the injured, also may have missed an opportunity to make an arrest. The white Dodge Charger that darted in front of officer Brandon Johnson may have contained fleeing suspects, and it was traveling on Seventh Street, not Capitol Avenue as he reported.

Another missed opportunity came before the shooting. Police said they overlooked signs that the concert at Power Ultra Lounge could turn violent. One of them was a promotional flyer that showed that night’s performer, Memphis rapper Ricky Hampton, who goes by the stage name Finese 2Tymes, pointing a semi-automatic rifle with his eyes looking down the sight.

Some of those findings were part of a 21-page assessment, known as an after-action report, that police wrote about how the department, emergency service agencies and hospitals handled the shooting. Other findings came from a multimedia presentation that Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner gave at a private international police conference in October.

Both documents were obtained by KATV under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Buckner’s presentation was released under protest, as the department claimed it was meant to be seen only by law enforcement officials and it contained sensitive information from an open investigation. The department, after consulting with Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter, destroyed its copies of the presentation after releasing it to KATV.

The police files, along with interviews with department leaders and city officials, provide the most complete account yet of the shooting at Power Ultra Lounge. They also show through videos, photos and audio recordings the complex challenges authorities face in responding to mass shootings.

As the threat of such shootings has increased, so has the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies on how to handle them. Buckner gave the presentation two-and-a-half weeks after Stephen Paddock opened fire from his Las Vegas hotel room on an outdoor music concert, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more. Since then, shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., and a high school in Parkland, Fla., have left dozens more dead and intensified a long-running national conversation on how to stop, or at least mitigate, the bloodshed.

Buckner spoke to about 150 of the 500 law enforcement officers who attended the conference, held in Philadelphia by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of 78 law enforcement agencies from the U.S. and Canada. The presentation, which was closed to the public, emphasized clear, concise communication between police and emergency services. Above all, it urged police leaders to train their officers in emergency medical care.

“If your Department doesn’t have this type of program,” the presentation says, “implement it immediately.”

The presentation provided attendees with more than “Lessons Learned from a Mass Shooting,” as its title promised. It gave them details of the investigation that Little Rock police had otherwise kept secret, such as the number of suspected shooters, where the shooters came from and the disappearance of the blood-soaked car from the crime scene.

The shooting, as described by authorities, was the bloodiest confrontation in a feud between Little Rock’s two dominant gangs, the Bloods-affiliated Real Hustlers Incorporated, also known as the Monroe Street Hustlers, and the Crips-affiliated Wolfe Street Crips. Beef between the groups had intensified after the fatal shooting of a 3-year-old girl months earlier. Police said the feud drove a citywide increase in violent crime last year.

Detectives interviewed 76 people after the shooting. Though few of those injured at the club saw who shot them and many others refused to cooperate with detectives, police found out that many of the gang members involved in the shooting were from Tennessee, according to the presentation. Police declined to elaborate.

A man with Little Rock gang connections, Tyler Jackson, 19, was arrested on accusations that he was the first to open fire at the club and that he shot at least three people. Another suspected shooter identified as Hampton’s bodyguard, Kentrell Gwynn, 25, of Memphis, was also arrested.

The search for other shooters continues. Investigators believe 13 people opened fire at Power Ultra Lounge that night, according to the police files. Police believe some of them fled before police arrived. And others, as police moved crowds of people away from the club to gain control of the crime scene, slipped past officers and into the darkness.

An overwhelming crime scene

Little Rock police investigators were awakened in the middle of the night to find an unprecedented task before them.

Photos from inside the two-story club, released to KATV as part of Buckner’s multimedia presentation, show overturned tables and chairs, blood spatters and a floor peppered with evidence markers. The crime scene, as police described it, was “massive.”

The scale of investigators’ work was documented in an evidence sheet. They recovered 57 shell casings of at least five different calibers from eight manufacturers; 105 live rounds, some of them found individually, others in gun cartridges and small boxes; 56 samples of blood and DNA; baggies of marijuana, pills and smoking pipes; and personal items such as purses, wallets, car keys, driver’s licenses and bank cards. Small amounts of cash and bloody clothes were also scattered throughout the club.

Police found 13 weapons at the club, at least two of which were rifles. One of the weapons recovered was a Kel-Tec Sub-2000, a foldable semi-automatic rifle advertised on the manufacturer’s website as “ideal for backpacking trips and situations where space and convenience are paramount.”

According to police, only five investigators were available to examine the club that morning. They stayed on the scene for 20 hours. After two hours, their rechargeable flashlights died and new lights had to be brought in. The investigators, working on only a few hours of sleep, became tired. But instead of taking a break or accepting other agencies’ offers to help, they worked continuously and without assistance because they believed they were “almost done.”

Police said one group that could’ve helped was the FBI Evidence Recovery Team, an elite group of investigators that responds to complex crime scenes across the country. The team was deployed to the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the terrorist attack in San Bernardino and the Boston Marathon bombing. But Little Rock police investigators had never trained with the FBI team and did not know their capabilities. They turned down the FBI’s offer to help, according to the after-action report.

As the investigators documented the crime scene -- a process that includes diagramming the area and extensively photographing anything within, whether or not its significance is evident -- patrol officers cordoned off the streets and parking lots surrounding the club. A bustling crime scene became quiet as the day wore on. Reporters and onlookers stood behind yellow police tape as officers slowly trickled away. According to the police files, police supervisors apparently wanted to get officers back on the streets and resume normal operations.

At some point, a person went past that yellow police tape without permission and took a blood-soaked car from the crime scene. It happened “long after most officers had left the area and a small force of officers was left” to keep the scene secure, Buckner’s presentation says. Police noted the car during an initial survey of the crime scene and later saw it had vanished.

“This is something that we recognize as a missing piece of the puzzle that we currently have,” Buckner said in an interview. He declined to comment further, citing an open investigation.

The Police Department, on occasion, has had crime scenes tampered with and evidence misplaced with minimal effect on cases. But according to Little Rock defense attorney Bill James, who has handled criminal cases in the city for more than 23 years, the car’s disappearance could cause problems for prosecutors.

“If you had proof that the scene, the crime scene, was violated or it was not secure, any issues of physical evidence would then certainly be subject to attack,” he said.

James and another longtime Little Rock defense attorney, John Wesley Hall, both said the importance of the car’s disappearance depends on an array of factors that remain unknown. Hall, who spent six years as a prosecutor, said either side of a criminal case might be able to use the lost vehicle to their advantage. In the absence of further information, he made one thing clear.

“It’s pretty brazen,” Hall said. “Stranger things have happened. But a whole car? Amazing.”

The lost car was just one chance to gather evidence that police missed. After investigators had left the crime scene, they learned that a ballistics expert from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had been available to examine the club. By the time they realized that, it was too late and “there was no way to reclaim this lost evidence,” the after-action report says.

Police also missed opportunities to get fresh accounts of the shooting and its aftermath. In their attempt to secure the area, officers herded countless witnesses away from the club, many of whom left without being interviewed by detectives. Police said many of the people at the club that night probably wouldn’t have cooperated with police, but something as simple as going through the crowd with a cellphone and recording faces and license plate numbers “would have made a significant difference in the follow-up investigation.”

Efforts to piece together the events of that morning were slowed by officers, as well. Those called to Power Ultra Lounge were asked to submit written accounts of their experience -- what they did, what they saw, who they spoke to, and so on. It’s a common request, one that usually takes officers a few days, at most.

But it took more than a month for some officers to submit their accounts of what happened, a delay that threatened to “allow details of the events to go stale and compromise the investigation,” according to the after-action report. Little Rock Police Assistant Chief Wayne Bewley said the number of officers who went to the club that morning -- every available officer was ordered to respond -- made it difficult to gather statements, but those who had crucial information relayed it quickly.

By the time the final statement had been received, authorities had already taken action. Little Rock had shut down Power Ultra Lounge, which had been operating as a nightclub illegally. A task force of local, state and federal authorities had formed and began operations to disrupt gang activity in the city. Kentrell Gwynn, the bodyguard of Memphis rapper Ricky Hampton, had been identified as one of the shooters and arrested.

Still, police warned in the after-action report that “no officer or supervisor should be released from duty after an event such as this before they turn in their statement regarding their actions.”

Seeking order in chaos

There was one call-taker on duty at the Little Rock Communications Center when the shooting at Power Ultra Lounge happened. Five others were working that morning in dispatch and supervisory roles.

At 2:27 a.m., the phones started ringing. And they kept ringing. Those on the other line spoke with fear and urgency.

“I’m in Power and my best friend just got shot,” one sobbing caller, a woman, says in 911 recordings released by police.

Another caller, a man who identifies himself as a security guard, says, “We got shooting going on … I’m downstairs and all I hear is multiple gunshots!”

Screaming can be heard in the background as the call-taker asks the man where the shooter is and what the shooter looks like. The man says the shooter is inside the club, then yells, “Just get the goddamn police!”

That morning, the communications center received 88 calls about the shooting, the earliest of which set off a mass casualty response mechanism that authorities had been developing for a decade. In 2007, Little Rock police began providing active-shooter response training to officers.Training expanded in 2015 to include military-style emergency medical care. Additionally, each of the city’s more than 500 police officers were equipped with trauma kits that contain gauze, a tourniquet and adhesive bandages used to treat gaping gunshot wounds. The same year, police began training for mass casualty events alongside the Little Rock Fire Department and the city’s ambulance service, Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services, or MEMS. Police also started training sergeants and lieutenants on how to establish a unified command post to coordinate efforts between agencies.

The aim of the training was to bring order to chaos. It was designed to mobilize police and medical resources quickly and safely, and to establish clear roles for those responding to mass casualty events. In theory, each agency’s effort would support another’s. In practice, it proved to be more complicated.

Every available officer in Little Rock was ordered to Power Ultra Lounge that morning, and many of them fell back on old habits. “Muscle memory” took over, according to the after-action report.

Sergeants who had been taught to set up a unified command center instead went to help the injured. A lieutenant who had received the same training instead went with officers to clear out the club, according to the after-action report. Radio transmissions between police and dispatchers, released as part of Buckner’s presentation, reveal what officers found inside.

“I got two victims upstairs,” an officer announces.

A second officer reports, “I have one outside in the parking lot, possibly shot.”

A third officer says, “I got one in the kitchen,” and shortly afterward, the scale of the shooting comes into focus. “If there’s anybody that’s [available],” an officer says, “we’re going to need more help down here. We’re going to need more MEMS units, as well.”

While some officers were tallying victims over the radio, others were making transmissions that police said clogged lines of communication, such as unnecessarily announcing that they were headed to the club. Other messages were misinterpreted because officers used routine police-speak instead of special radio codes established for mass casualty events.

Police singled out one example of this in the after-action report. Some officers used an everyday code meant to get ambulances to respond as fast as possible. The city communications center, short-handed and overwhelmed by the sudden surge in radio traffic, took that to mean it was safe to approach the club and relayed the message to MEMS. In fact, officers were still trying to secure the area and did not know if any shooters were still there.

The mistake turned out to be a lucky one. The gunfire had, in fact, ended. Medics arrived and began treating the injured faster than they would have otherwise. Police said it probably saved lives, but warned in the after-action report that “it could have ended in tragedy had an active aggressor still been in the area.”

Miscommunication caused ambulance personnel to approach the club too soon, but it also led the Little Rock Fire Department to enter the scene and start treating victims later than it should have. Two engine companies parked six blocks from the club and waited nearly 13 minutes for word that police had secured the area. They were “basically forgotten about,” according to the after-action report. Fire officials finally approached the club after switching radio frequencies and learning that ambulance personnel were already on the scene.

Once fire personnel arrived, a unified command post was established and the confusion subsided. Police learned several victims had traveled to area hospitals in private vehicles and began sending officers to meet them. Ambulances began transporting the injured. And authorities began circulating descriptions of the shooters and their vehicles.

In their assessment of the chaos, police found staffing at the communications center to be a major concern. The city has long struggled to fill the high-stress, low-paying positions at the center.

“The operation of the system with only one call taker puts a burden on the other positions in the system and leads to critical processes being omitted … this center is critical infrastructure and should always be fully staffed,” the report says. “Any decision to allow vacant positions to go unfilled in the Communications Center is short sighted and long lasting with the ability to regain full staffing slow and difficult.”

Despite the setbacks that morning, authorities met the greatest challenge they faced -- saving lives.

“The City of Little Rock was tested in this incident,” Buckner said in his presentation, “but showed it was capable and ready to respond.”

Making changes

Members of the Little Rock affiliates of the Crips and Bloods, some of whom authorities said were directly involved the shooting at Power Ultra Lounge, were arrested in a major law enforcement operation in central Arkansas on Feb. 22.

Forty-nine people, including a man who was shot at the club, Wallace Muhammad, were indicted on drug trafficking and gun charges. State, local and federal authorities called it a significant blow to gang activity in central Arkansas. Pulaski County sheriff’s office Maj. Carl Minden, speaking at a press conference, said the arrests sent a clear message: “If you’re a violent criminal in central Arkansas, we’re coming for you.”

As authorities built cases against those linked to the shooting, they also sought to learn from their response to it. A broad review of the shooting by police, fire and medical officials led authorities to strengthen interagency relations, re-evaluate how they train for active shooter situations and purchase new equipment to help them handle the chaos.

For Little Rock police crime scene investigators, the review led to a greater emphasis on patience. Though they worked for 20 hours straight at the club, police believe they would have performed better and gathered more evidence if they’d taken breaks and held the crime scene longer. Since the shooting, Buckner said, investigators have broken down complex crime scenes into “bite-sized pieces” to optimize their work. He said that method was used at a triple homicide in December involving a mother and her two children.

For bigger crime scenes, the department is prepared to request federal resources. Crime scene investigators who didn’t know the capabilities of the FBI Evidence Recovery Team have met with the group several times since the nightclub shooting to learn how they can work together. “I think that bridge has been crossed now,” said Bewley, the assistant police chief. “We have the relationship, and when we have another one of these situations, I think it will be very fluid in how it will work.”

Police also purchased longer-lasting, battery-powered flashlights for crime scene investigators, whose rechargeable flashlights died after two hours at Power Ultra Lounge.

Another piece of equipment is on the department’s wish list. Police are looking into buying patrol officers foldable, lightweight stretchers known as portable litters that can be used to carry or drag an injured person. Department spokesman Lt. Michael Ford said police are still seeking funding for the equipment.

For police supervisors, some of whom reverted to past training at Power Ultra Lounge instead of using emergency management skills they’d been taught, the department is looking at implementing more practical instruction. Most of the training the supervisors receive revolves around paperwork, according to the after-action report. They complete group exercises each year that are designed to sharpen their command skills, but the class sizes are large and more supervisors observe the drills than actively participate.

“We do recognize that’s something that we have to give our people more opportunities to utilize,” Buckner said.

Efforts to improve interagency communication have also been made. Police developed an alert system to notify hospitals of a large-scale emergency. They started shifting away from radio codes and toward “plain-talk,” which is just what it sounds like. “You just speak what you’re wanting instead of code,” which helps to avoid confusing other agencies, Bewley said.

Ambulance personnel, who were mistakenly cleared to approach the nightclub before police had secured the area, have been instructed to seek confirmation from police in the future, according MEMS executive director Jon Swanson.

At the Little Rock Communications Center, a class of trainees was set to graduate and fill vacant positions, according to the after-action report. The city had already raised salaries for call-takers and dispatchers in the hopes of reducing turnover.

Police said that since the shooting, the department’s intelligence unit has been providing more information to division commanders about certain events in the city. That led to the cancellation of a rap concert at the Clear Channel Metroplex in October. Buckner, citing information gathered by the unit, raised concerns about the event because the performer reportedly had gang connections and had recently been involved in three shootings.

Police have otherwise been hesitant to discuss the activities of the intelligence unit, a group of roughly six detectives who gather and distribute information from criminal informants, police surveillance videos, social media posts and other sources. It was unclear how the concert at Power Ultra Lounge “slipped by” the unit, as Buckner said in his presentation. The headliner, Ricky Hampton, a convicted felon who performs as Finese 2 Tymes, had reportedly been wanted for arrest in two other cities.

Buckner said some activity at the business went unnoticed because it was zoned as a restaurant and had been operating as a nightclub illegally. But records show authorities had responded to at least 37 civil and criminal complaints at the club ranging from gunfire to petty theft since 2013. And before Hampton took the stage that night, two off-duty officers working in the area as security guards confronted an armed man as he walked into the club. Police said the man, a member of Hampton’s entourage, went inside through a back entrance.

Buckner doubted the officers knew that many of those inside the club were rival gang members involved in a violent feud. They certainly didn’t know that 25 people would be shot minutes after their shift ended and they'd left the area.

But police, and others who responded to the shooting, were prepared.

“Because of some of the training that we had prior to that incident, we think that saved lives,” Buckner said. “But as it is with any large-scale incident of that magnitude, a professional organization is going to do a critical assessment. And part of that self-assessment is recognizing where we have opportunities for improvement.”

Editorial note: KATV learned about Buckner’s presentation at the international police conference in February, after he applied to become chief of the Charleston Police Department in South Carolina. The presentation was listed on his resume. Police said they destroyed other copies of the presentation after releasing it to KATV. City Attorney Tom Carpenter told them they were not required to keep the document under the state’s public records law. “This [presentation] is not something that was done as part of the investigation, this is something that was done about the investigation … the deal is, if we’re not required to keep it, then we shouldn’t be keeping it,” Carpenter said.


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