Crime - Sacto 911

‘Worst-case nightmare:’ Why did it take so long to get Tara O’Sullivan to a hospital?

The sniper was still shooting, moving back and forth between the sides of a house on Redwood Avenue.

Outside, rookie police officer Tara O’Sullivan lay wounded in the backyard of the North Sacramento home, up against a shed.

It was 6:10 p.m. Wednesday. O’Sullivan needed to be rescued, but there was only chaos as her fellow officers tried to figure out what to do while a gunman, who police identified as Adel Sambrano Ramos, continued to spray the neighborhood from a high-powered rifle.

Two minutes after the gunman shot O’Sullivan — and as he continued to fire shots out of all sides of the house — an officer called for help from a BearCat, the department’s armored vehicle, according to police radio traffic reviewed by The Bee.

“We need shields and we’re gonna need more than that,” he said. “Get that BearCat rolling.”

Seven minutes later, a large team of officers with dogs arrived in the alley near the backyard. One asked if they could rescue her. There was no response.

Three minutes later – 12 minutes after the 26-year-old officer had been shot — he asked again.

“I still need an answer to my question. Can we perform a rescue on this officer from where we’re at in the alleyway?” he asked.

“Our bulletproof vest will not cover us with the rifle that he has,” an officer replied.

The scene that played out Wednesday in Sacramento’s Noralto neighborhood is what policing experts call a worst-case scenario, a domestic violence call that turned into a war zone.

In the coming weeks, the Sacramento Police Department will analyze what happened on Redwood Avenue, investigating how O’Sullivan was ambushed and why it took so long — 44 minutes — to rescue the young rookie.

A review of scanner traffic from that night and interviews with law enforcement officials and experts nationwide indicate Sacramento police will have numerous questions to answer about their decisions that night, including:

Why the BearCat, which arrived within 18 minutes of O’Sullivan being shot, did not rescue her for another 26 minutes?

Why officers didn’t concentrate their fire at the gunman to provide enough cover to try and rescue O’Sullivan?

And, could more decisive actions have saved the young officer’s life?

“This is a worst-case nightmare, to see someone down and you can’t get them to safety immediately,” said Brett Meade, program director at the National Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., and 36-year veteran of Florida law enforcement. “The fact is, there is nothing more important for the officers on scene than to rescue a downed officer.”

“But, it doesn’t do any good to have another officer shot.”

Sacramento police have defended their actions Wednesday night, saying they were up against a heavily armed suspect who could easily have killed more officers if they had tried to rush to O’Sullivan’s side.

“When you have a tragedy like that, a lot of things are going on,” Deputy Chief Dave Peletta said at a press conference early Thursday after O’Sullivan had died. “But the first thing you think of is, ‘What safety equipment can you put between our officers and the person firing or the area that’s being fired upon?’

“In this case, we tried to use an armored vehicle, but because of the location where she was at, it made it very difficult to get the armored vehicle there. We don’t do any good if we send personnel out just to have more people hurt or injured.”

Chief Daniel Hahn was not immediately available for comment Friday. At the department’s academy graduation Thursday night, Hahn told reporters he “was not at liberty to give any of those details” of where the suspect was during the incident.

When asked why it took the department’s BearCat 44 minutes to rescue O’Sullivan, Hahn said, “One of the reasons it took so long is the suspect continued to fire at officers. So I know the character of the officers that serve this community and I know that they would have done anything to get to her. And I think it’s a product of good training, good leadership, and probably some luck that we didn’t have anybody else injured last night, both officers and members of the community.”

Sacramento police will not discuss details of the incident. Other than the press conference held after midnight Wednesday, they have said little, other than to issue a news release and confirm the identity of the suspect.

In an interview with The Bee, department spokesman Sgt. Vance Chandler said Ramos had more than one weapon but could not say exactly how many. When asked what kind of gun was wielded that night, Chandler said “we are working on that.”

“Our investigators continue to process the scene and we expect them to be out there through tomorrow.”

Chandler said he did not know how much ammo Ramos had stored in the house, or if Ramos had a way of monitoring officers’ movements.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has directed all questions about the response to the police department, his spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga said.

But law enforcement sources say authorities believe O’Sullivan walked into a carefully planned ambush, that the suspected gunman had barricaded the front door of his home before police arrived.

The sources say he had a sophisticated surveillance camera system at the home that allowed him to monitor police movements.

And they say he was armed with at least three high-caliber firearms, including two .223-caliber semiautomatic assault rifles equipped with bi-pods on the barrel to allow him to steady their aim.

“He was ready for them,” one source said, adding that the gunman had a huge amount of ammunition and that the rifles used were illegal “ghost guns,” weapons assembled from parts by an individual rather than a manufacturer.

Police obviously weren’t expecting to walk into such a scene.

O’Sullivan, who had been on the job for just a year, was still working with a training officer and had arrived at the home to stand watch as a woman removed her belongings from it, police have said.

She and her partner had been on scene for 30 minutes when the gunman began firing. Within minutes, officers from law enforcement agencies across the region were responding to reports of an officer down in the neighborhood of smaller homes and duplexes just south of El Camino Avenue.

Officers evacuated homes around the scene of the shooting, cordoning off blocks and warning residents and media to stay back because the gunman was firing his rifle indiscriminately.

With several hours of daylight left, and temperatures in Sacramento reaching 92 degrees Wednesday, officers on scene were desperate to get to O’Sullivan.

“What’s the ETA on that BearCat?” one officer called over the radio at 6:23 pm.

An officer in the BearCat appeared to respond they were on Richards Boulevard.

The police department stores its BearCat, an armored personnel carrier that could protect officers from the rifle fire, at a facility at 300 Richards Blvd. north of downtown, 2.9 miles from Redwood Avenue.

“We don’t have someone waiting (at the Richards Boulevard station) to take the BearCat out, Chandler said.

An officer responded from patrol to the department’s station on Richards Boulevard. He “grabbed the BearCat and headed to the scene.”

Chandler explained that the department had recently started training patrol officers to operate the BearCat because previously only SWAT personnel knew how to drive it.

The K9 unit asked a few more times if they could rescue her. They were advised to wait for the BearCat.

O’Sullivan was still alive for at least 14 minutes after she was shot. “She’s barely moving her hands,” an officer radioed in at about 6:24 p.m.

The vehicle arrived at 6:28 p.m. — about 18 minutes after O’Sullivan was shot.

But there was a problem: a fence stood between it and the yard.

As the gunman continued to fire from all sides of the house, officers spent at least another 20 minutes coordinating where to drive the BearCat through a fence to get to O’Sullivan.

Amid this, at 6:34 p.m., 24 minutes after O’Sullivan was shot, two officers tried to reach her through their radios.

“OK … the officer trapped can you broadcast?”

“Can you hear me? Can you broadcast?”

“Give me a quick on your mic if you can hear me?”

There was no reply.

The officers reported the rescue was complete at around 6:54 p.m., according to radio traffic.

It is unclear whether O’Sullivan died in the yard, during the 7-mile drive to UC Davis Medical Center, or once she arrived there.

Ramos, the alleged gunman, survived, surrendering just before 2 a.m. Thursday as armored vehicles from Citrus Heights, West Sacramento, Placer County and Sacramento surrounded the home.

Police made extraordinary efforts to avoid rushing the house and killing the suspect.

Although police say “multiple officers returned fire” during the eight-hour standoff, commanders gave commands numerous times through the night to only use lethal force if the suspect came out of the house armed.

Instead, after hours of negotiation by cell phone, the 45-year-old suspect surrendered.

O’Sullivan was the first Sacramento police officer to die in the line of duty in 20 years, and since Wednesday night’s shooting national experts have weighed in with differing views of whether police could have done more to save her.

Stephen Nasta, a former New York Police Department police inspector, said taking more than 40 minutes to rescue a downed officer is “unacceptable.”

“This is a horrible, tragic incident, 26 years old, wounded and lying in the backyard. Getting someone to the hospital – that’s the No. 1 priority,” said Nasta, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Forty minutes out, it’s a really extraordinary amount of time.”

There were other makeshift tactics the department could have used, such as draping armored materials over a van, or using a smoke grenade to distract the gunman, Nasta said.

He conceded that he did not know the exact circumstances that led to O’Sullivan’s death and said comparing the resources available to police in New York and smaller cities like Sacramento is like “comparing apples to oranges.”

“NYPD has huge equipment scattered across the city,” he said.

But the former police inspector said he could not abide the time it took to bring the fallen officer to safety.

“A delay of 40 minutes is really an unacceptable time,” Nasta said. “Something has to be done.

“You have to think out of the box (but) not instantaneously – you have to plan. But it’s an incredibly long period of time. Maybe (the department) needs more equipment or training. It’s just a really sad event.”

David Klinger, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a national expert on police tactics, said Sacramento police made the right call to wait for an armored vehicle given the extremely dangerous circumstances.

“You can put the vehicle between the injured officer and the citizen,” Klinger said. “That’s the basic approach, but don’t put your officers at unacceptable risk.”

Rifle fire represents that level of unacceptable risk, he said.

Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert who is also a SWAT member and certified crisis negotiator, said commanders must have perceived the risk to be so great that officers couldn’t attempt a rescue.

“They’re going to have to answer why? ... ” he said. “Why weren’t they throwing tear gas in the house? Smoke grenades? Flashbangs? Where were all those options? If they didn’t want to fire live rounds, they had those resources. ...

“Leaving an officer there for 44 minutes, that’s going to take a huge emotional toll on those who were there standing by. ... That’s our job. We put our lives at risk everyday. We want to save that officer.”

Law enforcement officials say police, in general, may be more hesitant now than in the past to take quick, violent action during a scene because of the immense criticism police have faced in recent years as videos of shootings have gone viral on social media.

Sacramento police have faced particular pressure since the March 2018 Stephon Clark killing, in which two officers fired 20 rounds and killed an unarmed black man in his grandmother’s backyard after he ran from them.

Police have said the officers thought he was armed, but subsequently discovered he was carrying only a cell phone.

That incident led to a number of policy changes within the department that has emphasized de-escalating a confrontation rather then automatically resorting to deadly force.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former longtime detective and gang investigator with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, said the effect in some departments has become what is referred to as “depolicing.”

Cooper, who attended O’Sullivan’s academy graduation ceremony, did not want to comment on the O’Sullivan case. But he said criticism of police actions nationwide in recent years has turned some away from pursuing law enforcement careers and led to some active officers thinking twice before taking the initiative in some cases.

“I would say, in general, you’re seeing depolicing because of everything that’s going on socially,” Cooper, an Elk Grove Democrat, said. “It’s just, hey, some folks don’t want to get involved. Why be proactive if you’re just going to be criticized.

“I think some officers are very leery. They don’t want to be that person. They’re very careful in how they deal with the public now.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.