While some shoppers fled a Colorado Walmart in the midst of an active shooting on Wednesday night, others remained inside and pulled out their own guns in response. Their bravery, however, may have actually hindered police efforts to identify the shooter.
As authorities reviewed surveillance footage, the “few” individuals who drew their handguns made it difficult for police to correctly identify the suspect or to determine how many suspects were involved in the shooting that left three people dead. After pouring over the footage for more than five hours, police ultimately identified 47-year-old Scott Ostrem as the suspect, but said they had to follow each individual with a firearm until he or she could be eliminated as a suspect.
“Once the building was safe enough to get into it, we started reviewing that as quickly as we could,” Thornton police spokesman Victor Avila said. “That’s when we started noticing” that a number of individuals had pulled weapons. “At that point, as soon as you see that, that’s the one you try to trace through the store, only to maybe find out that’s not him, and we’re back to ground zero again, starting to look again. That’s what led to the extended time.”
It’s unclear if any individuals were detained or if anyone other than the suspect fired off shots during the incident. Avila is also uncertain of how much more quickly the investigation would have proceeded otherwise, saying, “It was a very, very fluid situation, and we had to go with what was being presented at the time.”
Darlene Jackson was in the toy section of the Walmart location in question when she heard gunshots being fired off. The gun owner didn’t have her firearm on her at the time, but she heard others with guns didn’t confront the assailant.
“Why wouldn’t they draw their guns and shoot him?” she wondered.
Police are still looking for a motive behind the shooting and so far have discovered nothing suggesting it was terror-related. Ostrem is accused of killing Pamela Marques, 52, Carlos Moreno, 66, and Victor Vasquez, 26. He has only had minor run-ins with the law, dating back to the 1990s. In September 2015, he filed for bankruptcy.
While the presence of armed civilians can often assist police is taking down a suspect, it can also sometimes hurt their efforts.
“It can work both ways,” said Joseph Pollini, Law and Police Science Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and who also worked 30 years as a New York City police officer. “In one, you have law abiding citizens present at the scene of a shooting that could terminate it, assist in apprehending the individual. But generally as a rule, you turn to the police for that aspect. It’s not common for civilians to do the job of police, and the fact that they carry firearms can very much complicate things.”