This Dallas community college was thrust into the epicenter of an intense national debate about police violence — and simultaneously became a symbol of the courage of law enforcement officers — when a black man drove up to a peaceful protest and began firing. Micah Xavier Johnson killed five officers and wounded many in the deadliest assault on law enforcement since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
For the campus police officers who survived, it began as a quiet night, with some classes underway and workers cleaning the brightly lit building. A sergeant leaving duty offhandedly gave Corporal Detective Bryan Shaw the key to the gun locker on the first floor instead of returning it to the police department in the basement. Shaw stuck it in his pocket.
Officer John Abbott was wearing the shorts and tennis shoes he always wears for bike patrols. Chief Joseph Hannigan told the five officers on duty to lock the doors when they learned protesters would march by the downtown campus, a common route for demonstrators ending at the nearby JFK Memorial; another rally had passed by hours earlier.
But about 9 p.m., people heard loud pops. Noelle Hendrix, an El Centro alumna in the crowd outside, thought they were fireworks. Karla Fierro, who was taking a final exam in statistics on the 8th floor, thought it might be some kind of crowd control related to the protest.
Officers knew those sounds were gunshots, and they began running toward them as a second round burst out.
As Shaw and Abbott were about to push through the glass doors, “the door exploded,” Abbott said. Shattered glass lacerated his legs. A bullet hit Shaw under the vest.
They couldn’t see much in the darkness outside, but they were silhouetted against the building’s lights – easy targets.
Abbott, who had served with the Navy and the Marines in Iraq and elsewhere, recognized the distinct sound of the gunfire as coming from a rifle. Shaw took the key to the gun locker out of his pocket, thankful to have it at the ready, and ran with officers Gene Pouncy and Luis Hernandez to get better weapons. Abbott and Officer Andrew Maughan tried to hold the door. Johnson kept shooting, but they couldn’t see where the bullets were coming from, forcing retreat.
They also couldn’t see what Hendrix, the former El Centro student, could see from her hiding place nearby: Multiple officers getting hit by gunfire. Fierro said she heard 20 to 30 shots, and the professor in her class told the six students to stay away from the window.
The third time Abbott went out, he saw an officer down. A Navy Corpsman – a medic – Abbott pulled the man 20 feet or so, out of the line of fire, and rolled him over to treat him. That’s when he saw the man’s face. It was Brent Thompson, a good friend, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer with whom he had worked closely over the years and always hit it off; a fellow Marine.
Abbott put pressure to try to stop the bleeding from the gunshot wounds. It was already too late.
Shaw heard gunfire that sounded as though it were coming from the entrance on another street, and he ran that way. He saw a trail of blood from the door to a stairwell and followed it. When he stepped into the stairwell, bullets ripped by him.
He couldn’t see anyone, but he said seven or eight shots were fired in his direction as he quickly backed out, amazed that he didn’t get hit. “God had his hand over all of us,” he said.
He radioed that there was a gunman inside the college. He hoped enough Dallas police could get there to help secure the perimeter, but he knew there were multiple stairways and doorways, with three interconnected buildings and lots of places to hide.
Abbott ran in the direction of gunfire, and a Dallas police sergeant, who had a larger tactical vest on but no helmet, called for an officer to get behind him. Abbott did: “He said, ‘Get behind me, I can take his shots to the chest, he’ll have to shoot me in the head to kill me.'”
So that officer provided cover, using himself as the shield.
“A lot of people just disregarding their own safety to go get this guy,” Abbott said.
At some point Shaw put his hand under his vest where his stomach hurt and when he pulled it out, he saw it was covered with blood. But like Abbott, he ignored the pain.
“I just wanted a piece of him,” Abbott said of the gunman. “I wanted to get him.”
The officers were working in unison, Abbott said, checking in on each other. When he went with a Dallas officer to get more tactical gear, like Kevlar helmets, from El Centro’s supplies, he paused to lock the area, and for a moment thought the other officer, a stranger, was gone.
But after he closed the door the man was standing right there and told him, “‘Don’t worry, brother. I’m never going to leave you.'”
They knew a gunman had gone upstairs, but Abbott also knew how many different ways there were for someone to evade officers there. He drew some quick maps of the El Centro buildings and began advising officers about possible scenarios, escape routes, windows, working with them to get police in the right places to corner him.
“They had a camera that showed his location,” Abbott said. “You couldn’t see him, but he was there. I said, ‘You need to get people here – he can get out – he can shoot at the street, he can shoot around the corner, he can get upstairs, he’s got a lot of access points.'”
Upstairs, Fierro and her classmates were confused, but they thought it was probably safe to leave, so they headed to the elevator. When the doors opened on the first floor, they didn’t step out right away, stunned by what they saw: Broken glass strewn everywhere, windows and doors essentially gone, an alarm blaring.
Officers asked if someone was in the elevator, then told them to come out with their hands up. “We had no idea what was happening right underneath us,” Fierro said.
Officers led them outside, along a wall. They saw swarms of police on the streets and snipers above them. Fierro, who was planning a career in law enforcement, looked at the officers and thought, “Am I fit for this job? Because they are so brave and I am totally scared right now.”
Abbott was told there were 30 or so students and faculty upstairs, and he helped them get out to a safer place. They learned there were eight people hiding in a maintenance closet. Jose Adames, El Centro’s president, said the group of contract workers who had been cleaning the building were initially too frightened to come out, not sure it was really police on the other side of the door.
Fierro and her classmates, and then another small group of students, huddled along the outside wall of the building for about half an hour, terrified, she said: “Everyone was just ready for anything to happen.” She felt safer when officers moved them to the parking garage across the street, where it was more sheltered.
Police found two more students hiding in the basement and helped them get out, Abbott said.
There was still a lot of confusion; they didn’t know if there were multiple attackers, or whether there were explosives.
As the night wore on, the gunman holed up in a narrow space on the second floor of a third building, where it was difficult for officers to reach him. Shaw showed officers the walk-in refrigerator in the culinary instruction area, and he said they could rotate officers on and off rifle duty, sending them in there to cool off.
Abbott told another officer that their friend Thompson had died. That’s when he learned that another of his friends had been killed, and three others wounded.
“It was all pretty much intense,” Abbott said. “But that was probably the hardest part.”
Students were calling their parents and telling them they loved them. Fierro was still frightened, but an officer reassured them that they were in the safest place in Dallas, completely surrounded by officers.
She and other students were escorted away from the college by police around midnight.
About 3 a.m., an officer looked at Shaw and Abbott, covered in blood, and told them to get treated for their injuries. They had been fighting the ambush for six hours.
After they were treated by Dallas Fire-Rescue at the scene, they both refused transport to the hospital, and went back. But officers wouldn’t let anyone into the building. “We just stood there,” Abbott said. “I wanted to make sure that we were done – that the threat was neutralized. No one likes getting into a fight and having to leave without saying it’s over.”
Abbott heard the explosion that killed Johnson, a remote bomb police sent in by robot. He fully supported the decision to detonate it: It saved officer’s lives, he said.
They left at noon the next day. Shaw’s wife met him at the hospital; he will need surgery. They both have two young children. Abbott returned home and stopped his wife from hugging him until he could get out of his uniform, which was soaked in blood.
Abbott’s six-year-old son saw his leg bleeding after his shower and tried to help with a towel. “I just told him, ‘Yeah, Daddy got an owie at work,’ and he said, ‘Don’t get an owie again.'”
They went to the memorial attended by the president, the vice-president, a former president. They rested. Abbott went to Thompson’s funeral, but shipped out on military duty to Alaska on Thursday; he will pay his respects to the other officers when he returns, he said.
Adames has been working to ensure that students can start classes at other locations or online, ensuring counseling is available, and planning a gathering for everyone when they can get back into the buildings. There will have to be repairs to glass and bullet holes in walls and the collapsed ceiling and wall where the bomb went off. He thinks Johnson might have honed in on El Centro because it’s the only building in the area with big columns, providing shelter.
“To have this happen at our institution is really heartbreaking,” he said. But “this evil that walked through our doors is not going to define us.”
Abbott and Shaw never saw Johnson. They didn’t know, until he had been killed, that he was targeting police officers.
Abbott has nothing to say about the shooter.
Neither does Shaw: “Nope,” he said deliberately.
As for the tensions over race and police, and the anger over black men shot by white officers, Abbott paused, then said: “We’re people too. It’s — we’re people, too.”