After mall shooting, yet another mayor becomes a member of the club no one wants to join
On a sleepy Sunday night at the mall in Greenwood, Ind., a gunman opened fire just after closing time. He killed three people and injured others before an armed “good Samaritan” killed him. As the mayors of Highland Park, Uvalde, Buffalo — and now Greenwood — have learned the hard way, mayors play an outsized role in a city’s response to a mass shooting. Yet, city leaders rarely think about their role, let alone prepare for it, until the unimaginable happens.
That’s why my colleagues and I researched six cities that have responded to a mass shooting. We interviewed mayors, city staffers, and law enforcement officials who responded to mass shootings in six cities: Orlando, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Dayton, Parkland, and San Bernardino. Our sole focus was on the role of the mayor and his or her team.
We used their harrowing experience, combined with public health resources developed by the CDC, the FBI, and FEMA, to develop the Mass Shooting Protocol, a checklist city leaders can use during the first 24 hours after a mass shooting. We also developed the Mass Shooting Playbook, a comprehensive resource city leaders can use to prepare, to respond, and to help their community recover from a mass shooting.
We learned that the mayor’s responsibilities start when the first shots are fired. Put simply, while law enforcement seeks to neutralize the threat, city leaders must act quickly to meet the urgent needs of their community.
First, as the principal elected representative, the mayor serves as the city’s “communicator-in-chief.” Traditionally, the public looks to the mayor for public safety assurances, updates about the victims, referrals to resources, and messages of healing and unity. The need for words of comfort from a trusted official after an unspeakable tragedy is the reason Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer insisted he speak first, before FBI officials, at the first press conference following the Pulse attack.
Second, as then-Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s response to the Tree of Life shooting demonstrated, city leaders must ensure the needs of the victims and family members are met. Such support usually starts by standing up a Family Reunification Center — a physical space to reunite friends and family, to provide grief counseling for those who have lost their loved ones, and to keep the families separate from the press. That effort will be followed by establishing a Family Assistance Center to provide more comprehensive services to victims, families, and friends, including referrals to mental health care, legal services, victim compensation, funeral services, childcare, and so on. This is a major undertaking for a mayor’s office, and requires planning, partners and significant resources.
Third, following a mass shooting, community-wide trauma is a significant, lasting public health problem. It’s usually up to the mayor to find ways to address it, often by organizing vigils and arranging for long-term mental health services. The need for these critical services will continue for years, long after the nation has moved on. El Paso Mayor Dee Margo’s ability to establish a long-term Resiliency Center continues to be a key aspect of the recovery of his community following the Walmart shooting.
These are just a few of the responsibilities that fall to locally elected officials when a mass shooting takes place. They are also responsible for managing the legal consequences, supporting the business community, and seeking funds to recover some of the enormous cost of the response.
Congress recently passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which provides significant resources to reduce gun violence. But the Act does nothing to help mayors respond to mass shootings.
Businesses, schools, and other concerned Americans can help their local elected officials by sharing the Protocol with them and urging them to plan their response to a mass shooting, just as law enforcement officials do. The Biden administration can lend additional support by ensuring mayors have the technical support, training, and the resources they need before tragedy strikes. As the former mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley, often says to other leaders, “It isn’t if but when. You need to prepare.”
Sarah C. Peck is Director of UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. She co-authored the Mass Shooting Protocol & Playbook: A Resource for U.S. Mayors and City Managers.