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'What do I remember? Everything': Aurora police chief reflects on theater shooting

Dan Oates was Aurora Police chief on July 20, 2012, when a gunman opened fire in the Century 16 movie theater, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more.

AURORA, Colo. — Over his 39-year career in law enforcement, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates' reputation was cemented by a single day in July 2012. It's a day Oates said he has never, could never and will never forget.

"The single most significant event personally in my career," Oates said. "What do I remember? Everything."

On July 20, 2012, a gunman opened fire in the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, killing 12 people and wounding dozens more. The effects of that terrifying and disturbing night of violence are still being felt 10 years later.

"It was a cataclysmic event for this city, for this department, obviously for every victim, and life-altering," Oates said.

Oates remained at the Aurora Police Department (APD) for two years after the theater shooting and then became chief of the Miami Beach Police Department, where he stayed until retiring in 2019.

This past May, he came back to APD as the interim chief after Vanessa Wilson was fired. Oates said even though he was gone from Aurora for years, the theater shooting was never far from his mind.

"That incident has very much stayed with you. Oh yeah, oh yeah," he said. "I still keep in touch with certain families and touch base with them on every anniversary."

Oates reflected not just on the lives lost but on the bravery of his officers and the lives they saved.

"A young sergeant, eight minutes into that event, made the call and put the wounded in patrol cars and got them to the hospitals," Oates said.

Credit: KUSA
Boulder Police Deputy Chief Stephen Redfearn

That young sergeant was Stephen Redfearn, now the deputy chief of the Boulder Police Department, whose decision to send the most seriously wounded victims to the hospital in patrol cars was credited with saving nearly 30 lives.

"One officer made four roundtrips to the hospital. Another made three," Redfearn said. "When the adrenaline wore off and we had time to take a breath, literally it was like, what the hell just happened, what did we just do?"

Redfearn said he struggled emotionally in the first year after the shooting and never really put it behind him.

"The whole human side of this, that was huge for me, really putting things in perspective," he said.

Describing the shooting as a transformational experience, Redfearn said the incident gave him a new perspective on life, death and police work.

"This changed me as a person, it changed me as a police officer," he said. "I hope to God I never have to go on that call again, but, if that call came out right now, I’d leave in the middle of this interview and get there as fast as I can because that’s what we do."

Credit: 9NEWS
Victims of the Aurora theater shooting.

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