GARLAND, Texas — It wasn’t a fair fight.
On one side, you had two men in body armor, toting assault rifles and showing every willingness to open fire now and count their victims later. On the other, you had a security officer — a traffic officer by day — with a pistol.
Somehow, the officer won.
Authorities have not released the name of the overmatched Garland, Texas, police officer who stopped a pair of gunmen Sunday night outside that city’s Curtis Culwell Center, where people had gathered at an event featuring controversial cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. But they have described what he did, actions that could be characterized as equal parts skillful, heroic and miraculous.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson lauded the police officer for having “acted quickly and decisively, and thereby likely (saving) a number of innocent lives.”
“He did what he was trained to do,” added Garland police spokesman Joe Harn. “And under the fire that he was put under, he did a very good job.”
Precedent for extremist attack
Authorities knew ahead of time that there could be trouble this weekend in Garland.
Many Muslims firmly denounce cartoons that depict Mohammed as offensive to their faith. And some extremists have turned to violence to express their opposition, by attacking those behind such drawings, as they did in the January massacre at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a February incident at a Copenhagen, Denmark, forum attended by Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks.
As if the Mohammed cartoons weren’t enough to make Sunday’s event a target, there was also the presence of its keynote speaker, Geert Wilders. The right-wing Dutch politician is on an al Qaeda hit list for his short film, “Fitna,” which pairs disturbing images of terrorist acts with text from the Quran and recordings of incitements by extremist Islamic authorities.
The potential of a new attack was why the Garland police officer was at the convention center, which the Texas city’s school district operates. He had plenty of company: Harn didn’t specify the number of law enforcement officers on site, but did say the event’s organizers paid $10,000 for beefed-up security.
“Garland police officers work at the convention center all the time as an off-duty job,” Harn said. “And that was the case … for everyone.”
Gunmen ‘started shooting at the police’
The officer who’d later be praised as a hero was parked in a patrol car in front of the first entrance, from the east, off Naaman Forest Boulevard into the center’s parking lot. An unarmed Garland school district security officer sat in the car with him, ostensibly to check the identification of those coming in.
The event started, by all accounts, without a hitch around 5 p.m., and for nearly two hours nothing serious happened.
Until, that is, about 6:50 p.m., when a dark-colored vehicle pulled into the entrance the Garland officer and school district officer were blocking.
“When that car pulled up and stopped, those officers began to exit that vehicle and two men exited the dark-colored sedan,” Harn said. “Both of them had assault rifles, came around the back of the car and started shooting at the police car.”
Gunfire reverberated around the complex, from the two gunmen, the armed officer and a nearby SWAT team — four of whom fired high-powered rifles, according to a source familiar with the officers involved.
Within 15 seconds, it was basically over.
The school district security officer had been hit in the leg, an injury that would be treated at a hospital. The two gunmen got it much worse and were lying by their car.
And the Garland traffic officer — the man who Harn says fatally shot both attackers — was still standing.[ndn id=”29018885″]
Instructor: ‘Very brave and quick thinking’
He had a .45-caliber Glock pistol, a much less powerful weapon than the rifles used by the attackers, who have since been identified by federal law enforcement officials as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi.
“The officer is lucky he wasn’t hit because I’m pretty sure his body armor would have been penetrated by that rifle round,” Phil Ryan, a Texas police academy instructor, told KTVT. “He could go above the body armor, below the body armor, (or)… in the head.”
As much as fortune may have played a role, so did skill and steely nerves, Ryan points out. It’s one thing to aim at a cardboard target while training at a gun range; it’s quite another to shoot accurately when the targets are shooting back.
“Very brave and quick thinking for him to do what he did,” Ryan said.
Harn, the police spokesman, said that if it weren’t for the actions of all the officers involved, “we’d be hearing a different kind of story.”
“They faced death head-on,” Harn said. “And, with incredible skill and bravery, (they) were able to save a lot of people.”