A Colorado Springs 911 operator told a distraught caller worried about a man with a rifle and handgun that he had a right to carry the weapons, but she said the fact that he also had gas cans seemed suspicious.
The operator, speaking to the woman just minutes before the gunman opened fire and killed three people, gave the call a non-urgent priority that did not immediately summon police, according to materials released by Colorado Springs police Wednesday.
The caller, Naomi Bettis, called 911 again and tearfully told another operator that she had just witnessed a fatal shooting in front of her home. That call prompted police to send all available officers.
“I just called a few minutes ago — the guy came back out. He fired the gun at somebody, and he is lying in the street dead. Oh, my God! Can you send an ambulance.”
Police released copies of two 911 audiotapes from Saturday morning and defended the 911 operator’s response in the initial call. Police said the operator followed department policy and national protocols.
Noah Harpham, 33, killed bicyclist Andrew Alan Myers, 35; Jennifer Michelle Vasquez, 42; and Christina Rose Baccus-Gallela, 34, before dying in a shootout with officers.
The emergency call has sparked intense debate on how police should respond to armed people in public given Colorado’s open carry law.
Bettis told The Denver Post this week she called 911 after spotting her neighbor, Harpham, with a rifle on the street.
Toward the end of the first call, the operator asked Bettis whether she or anyone else “was in immediate danger.”
Bettis replied: “No.”
Late in the six-minute call, Bettis also told the operator that the man was carrying a handgun in addition to the rifle.
Police, in a Wednesday news release, said the initial operator flagged the call as a possible burglary in progress.
The call originally was classified a “priority 3” but was changed to a “priority 2 level” response, police said. The response is typical for situations “with potentially dangerous circumstance but no apparent imminent life threat.”
All officers in the area of the call “were engaged on other calls for service” at the time, police said. The first officer to clear, at 8:47 a.m., was sent to an in-progress disturbance at a senior care facility.
About 2 minutes, 40 seconds into the call, the operator explains to Bettis the Colorado law allowing public handling of firearms.
“Well, it’s an open carry state, so he can have a weapon with him or walking around with it,” the operator told Bettis. “Of course, having the gas cans seems suspicious, so we are going to keep the call open for that.”
At the end of the call, the operator tells a shaken Bettis: “We do have that call started for you. I want you to call us immediately if anything changes or if you have any further information or if you see him leave.”
She tells Bettis, “Have a safe day.”
Within 10 minutes of the initial call, Harpham killed three people.
Officers found Harpham standing in the middle of a busy street, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Wednesday. The agency is investigating the incident.
“He was armed with a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other hand. He was given commands to drop his guns. He refused and immediately began firing at police,” the release said.
The windshield of a police car was hit by Harpham’s fire. Four officers returned fire, striking Harpham once with a fatal round.
Harpham had an AR15 rife, a .357 revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
In the second call to police, at 8:55 a.m., Bettis cried as she described the shooting of Myers.
“This guy was riding a bike, through the alley, and he shot him, and he’s dead,” she told the operator. “Send somebody.”
At one point in the second call, Bettis hears gunfire nearby.
“I just heard another gunfire. Oh, my God!” she said. “I think the police might have found him.”
“I hope there isn’t any more people dead,” Bettis said.
The call goes back to describing Meyers, the bicyclist who was shot first.
“Oh, my God. Bless his heart,” Bettis said. “It doesn’t look like he is breathing. It is pretty bad.”