Good Bullet, Bad Bullet

At Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler notes that the government is withholding autopsy information that would reveal how many of the victims of the Orlando shooting died from “friendly fire,” bullets shot by police in their effort to take out the shooter.

Orlando’s police chief said that it was possible that some law enforcement officers — that might include the four who initially responded to Omar Mateen or the nine SWAT team members who later did — had (accidentally) shot Pulse patrons.

Monday, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other law enforcement officers offered new details about the shooting, including the possibility that some victims may have been killed by officers trying to save them.

Faced with an active shooter and a room filled with innocent people, a tactical decision must be made by police whether to fire to attempt to end the threat, even though there is a likelihood that their bullets will strike an innocent and kill them.  There are times when this tactic makes sense, where the choice is between bad alternatives and the least bad alternative is chosen. There are times when it’s a tactically unsound decision.

Mina said his decision to enter the club with such violence was tough. “It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is on saving lives, and it was the right decision to make.”

Was it? Probably, though there is insufficient information available to reach any valid determination. And it’s this lack of information that makes acceptance of Chief Mina’s conclusion difficult.

“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”

There is some magic to the incantation of the word, “investigation,” as if its mere utterance provides an official basis to withhold information.  Mind you, despite there being an ongoing investigation, the government is happy to release the information it wants to release, but falls back on the word when it chooses to conceal information.

The medical examiner’s office released a statement Thursday confirming that it had, as planned, completed all the autopsies by Tuesday afternoon. But because of the ongoing investigation, autopsy reports (like Mateen’s 911 calls and all other public records) will not be released at this time.

There are reasons why information might not be disclosed during the pendency of an investigation. It may be to not tip off a suspect that the cops are on to him. It may be so that details remain secret to vet whether informants or suspects know them, to validate their information and distinguish people who possess real knowledge from those who, for whatever reason, want to be falsely involved.

Here, there is nothing about the investigation to explain why this information ought to remain hidden from view. So they’re still investigating? So what? While it’s not entirely clear what investigation remains to be performed, the number of people killed by police bullets rather than the shooter’s bullets won’t compromise anything.

Instead, the failure to disclose information in hand gives rise to an unpleasant smell.  If there is no harm to be done by disclosure, then disclose. If there is no disclosure, why not? If there is no disclosure, what are they concealing and why?

So when he said that some of the victims might have been killed by the cops, he presumably knew specific numbers to that point. The medical examiner has had a final count of how many victims were killed in the cross-fire since Tuesday.

None of that minimizes Mateen’s guilt for setting off the melee. It just is a data point that the cops know, but aren’t yet revealing, how many people the cross-fire killed.

While it may not minimize the shooter’s guilt for what he did, it is more than just a data point. It is a reflection of the introduction of selective information, cherry-picked news to offer for public consumption and cherry-picked news to conceal.  If the cops did nothing wrong, what do they have to hide?  Maybe nothing. Maybe they just don’t trust the public enough to understand that in a situation such as this, people will die one way or another, and death by cop bullet was the unavoidable right choice.


To the victims, their families, there is no meaningful distinction between dying at the hand of the shooter or at the hand of the cops. Dead is dead. A bullet from one gun kills like the bullet from another. Every death, every wound, matters. And had the shooter not started the massacre, the police would not have been there returning fire. It is the shooter’s fault.

Yet, it is fair to question whether the police response was appropriate, if only to determine whether all the military equipment, all the SWAT gear, all the training, all the explanations and excuses, all the appeals to trust the police because they know what they’re doing, are true. Maybe the cops weren’t perfect. Maybe they were. Maybe not a single person in Pulse died because of a “good” bullet rather than a bad one. Who knows?

Well, the government knows. And the fact that they are withholding that information from the public suggests they don’t want us to know, which further suggests that they didn’t do a very good tactical job of it.  The government loves telling us about the great job it does. When it screws up, not so much. By concealing this available information, and hiding behind the lame excuse of this being an “ongoing explanation,” they raise questions about their performance.

Maybe the cops did a great job here. But concealment makes it smell, whether it deserves to or not.  And there’s just no reason for it.  If the failure to disclose is based on fear that the public is too clueless to grasp that crossfire could do harm to innocent victims, then educate us. But if you conceal from us, then we are left with no choice but to assume the worst.

29 thoughts on “Good Bullet, Bad Bullet

  1. David MeyerLindenberg

    Marcy was surprisingly willing to give the gov the benefit of the doubt in both cases (“data point,” “DoJ fucked up.”) I’m inclined to blame politics; if you’re anti-gun but recognize security threats happen, you need to have confidence in the police, and if you swing progressive, you don’t want to acknowledge DoJ may have its thumb on the scale.

    Since the Orlando shooting’s become a kind of palimpsest, suitable for everyone to confirm their bias, it’s nice to see posts where the focus is squarely on gov hypocrisy.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought Marcy was a little too generous to the government as well. This is one of those scenarios that involve too many conflicted issues, which blended together serve to blunt some otherwise obvious critiques. This is a hard one for many people to wrap their heads around.

  2. Wrongway

    When the Number of dead first came out, & they said one guy did that with one rifle, my first thought was either he’s damn good or this is bullshit.. some ‘thing’ went wrong there..
    Also the 911 call is being redacted as well.. really!!?

    it smells to high heavens, but they gotta get their stories straight.. to avoid lawsuits & such things.. The Gov. Does Need That Heli-Pad Next To His Mansion.. he’s tired of that 15min drive to the airport & can’t be deprived of the funding..

  3. Nick L. EMT-P

    I’ve been reading from sources, that have experience in tactics using rifles and handguns, that it is possible that many victims were murdered with a handgun. Their basing this on the official reports that the shooter was actively texting and posting on social media while shooting. Something that would be nearly impossible while having to use both hands to hold a rifle.

    Withholding information on what kind of wounds the victims suffered (rifle vs pistol caliber) can support the narrative that we need another assault weapons ban.

    1. paul

      The swat member who survived a shot to the helmet is further evidence of pistol use by the gunman. That helmet would not have stopped rifle fire. Btw its not just caliber but riflr ballistics that make the difference.

      While your explanation of pushing the assault rifle ban fits my bias nicely it might be a little too cynical.

    2. DaveL

      It’s practically impossible to do while actively engaging targets, whether with one hand or two. It seems to me his activity on social media and text messaging demonstrates more about the luxury of time that he enjoyed, than it does about the specific weapons used.

  4. snarky goes legit

    All good points (/gertruding), but one thing going unsaid is that the same principle applies to the reporting here. The source article does a less-than-convincing job of backing up the assertions it makes.

    By concealing information, the reporter leaves open the possibility that he is lying about which party “offered…the possibility” of patrons being shot by the cops. The statement he provides by Chief Mina to support his claim is obviously incomplete. Who starts a statement or answer with “I will say this”?

    What did he say immediately before that? Did he say “We don’t know the answer to that”? Did he say “It’s certainly a possibility, but we’re not gonna tell you”? What was the question he was asked that prompted his response to begin with? Did this reporter’s remaining 18 paragraphs not leave him enough space to include the two more sentences it would have taken to let us know either of these things?

    And what exactly was said by the anonymous “source close to the investigation”? (The reporter’s equivalent magical incantation.) Could the reason we don’t even get an actual quote from that person be because the source’s words were even less helpful than Chief Mina’s were?

    Remember, any answer you provide to these questions short of a knowing denial can and will result in your words being used to indicate that you “offered the possibility” that this reporter is deceiving us.

    Maybe the reporter did a great job here. But as someone who really knows their shit once said, concealment makes it smell, whether it deserves to or not.

    Then again, most people just won’t care enough to ask these questions. This is official news, after all. It’s not like they can think of any reason why some people might want to steer them toward a favorite talking point in a contentious public debate. And it’s probably true, so why does it matter how we get there?

      1. snarky goes legit

        Damn, I should have known that sentence was overdoing the snark. Maybe that other one too.

  5. Beth

    I am reminded of the Waco shoot-out more than a year ago. Nine people killed and still no information about anyone regarding whether they were killed by cops or bikers.

  6. Patrick Maupin

    But if you conceal from us, then we are left with no choice but to assume the worst.

    This. And “the worst” might not even be about the number of friendly fire casualties. Good autopsies should also show us how many victims could have live but bled out while Mateen cowed the ever-first-rule-cognizant police with lies about non-existent explosives.

    Or maybe “the worst” is about how we’ll never know either of those because the autopsies themselves are shit — how long does a single autopsy usually take?

    1. Rick

      I think one of the serious problems here is that 8-14 (the range of cop quantity that I’ve seen) officers, armed with at least handguns, didn’t know how to maneuver on and put down a single shooter with a rifle. Unless we are missing huge chunks of the relevant information, this is a task which should be easily achievable by anyone with a little bit of tactical knowledge: one element suppresses while the other element bounds forward, alternating until the threat is ended at point-blank ranges.

      In other words, there seems to be a concern about the tactical discipline/competence of these police: apparently no one took charge, or if they did they failed to direct their fellow officers effectively. Seems like a substantial training gap.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        I assume their training was fine, but after they heard about the “bomb”, it took them 3 hours to get out of their body armor, change their underwear, and suit up again.

  7. Troutwaxer

    Florida cops turned loose in a Gay bar and allowed to fire at will, plus not releasing autopsy reports? It doesn’t just stink, it reeks to high heaven.

    On the other hand, brave cops go into a closed space with an active shooter. That’s a whole lot better than they did at Columbine. How much do we second-guess them even if some of the victims died of friendly fire?

    We definitely need some of the Florida sunshine here!

  8. drouse

    Most likely just the initial leak. May have been friendly fire… well one or two were hit… okay it was like 3 or 4… alright it was a whole shitload. Dribbling out the bad news is a well honed tactic.

  9. Brady Curry

    If the news got out that some of the dead were shot by cops, it would undermine one of their main arguing points against citizens carrying firearms. Innocent bystanders may/will be accidentally shot so you better leave it to the professionals.

    If in a building with an active shooter I would gladly welcome another citizen returning fire at the risk of getting caught in the crossfire while waiting on the cops to show up .

    1. DaveL

      No, there’s a ready-made reply to that sort of logic, to the tune of “no matter how bad the cops did, civilians would have done worse.” It’s more an article of faith than a reasoned argument, of course, but it seems to be widely accepted, especially by those with little exposure to civilian firearm use.

    2. snarky goes legit

      Seems like that would be a secondary concern after “it makes us look incompetent and dangerous.”

      On the other hand, it would also useful in supporting one of the main talking points against citizens carrying firearms: more guns = worse results. The cops would have a hard time playing that card, but a journalist could go to town with it. Maybe one already is.

  10. rojas

    Pictures are available of the bullet riddled side of the building that was breeched. Although apparent that one exit point in particular was the clear favorite, looks like swat opened up with at least a few rounds on every portal they made.

  11. John Rew

    Probably one of the most frustrating aspects of this situation is the lack of confidence in the media. I think everyone has visions of editorial staff working overtime to put their own spin on the facts. The likelihood of a “Watergate” level of journalism today is practically zero. Many mainstream news publications are so close to being tabloids that it’s like trying to extract current affairs from x men movies.

  12. Enjoin This!

    On another note, we can learn more about the First Rule of Policing’s cost. Seems generally to be 1 or 2 lives. But they were “Guilty Anyway,” so we’ve got to apply a discount factor.

    I haven’t paid attention to police casualties, LEO response times, or Mateen’s mode of death. I don’t recall hearing of any LEO deaths here. But can we now postulate an upper limit? FROP ≤ 49 lives? Of course, we’ll have to apply the “Gay Anyway” discount here.

    I’ve always suspected the “Protect and Serve” motto was purposefully ambiguous. Antecedent references, implicit assumptions, and all that. If they release facts here, the sheeple might begin to ask uncomfortable questions. Every incentive to stonewall. Disrespects the “heroes” to even question, etc.

    Meanwhile, I’m purchasing N.W.A.’s 1988 hit single & using it for my ring tone. And I’m giving a $.02 charitable contribution to PBA, which I’ll mail in their postage pre-paid envelope.

    – ET!

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