Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese reflects on mass shooting – Press Enterprise

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It was after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Scott Wiese, the chief of the Monterey Park Police Department, had gone to bed. His phone rang — never a good sign so late at night.

It was his second-in-command, the Operations Captain Gus Jimenez.

Ten people had been killed, Jimenez said, and 10 others had been injured by a gunman, later identified as 72-year-old Huu Can Tran. Tran walked into the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park holding a pistol modified with a high-capacity magazine and sprayed the beloved dance studio with gunfire for about a minute. Tran then drove to Alhambra, where a heroic citizen, Brandon Tsay, disarmed him, and then Tran disappeared into the night.

On Saturday — exactly a year since the shooting — Monterey Park community members will gather for a vigil at the ballroom to remember the 10 people who died that night and one woman who died soon after. Wiese reflected on the year that he, and his department, have had since the shooting.

After making calls to his own administration — and texting newly-inaugurated L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna — Wiese got in his car and drove to the scene.

“It’s big,” Wiese recalled texting Luna. “I’m going to need some sheriff’s resources. It sounds like it’ll be on the news in the morning.”

As Wiese drove to the scene of the mass shooting, he thought of Uvalde, Texas, where police officers waited more than an hour to breach the classroom where an 18-year-old gunman had opened fire on children and teachers. The agonizing footage of police officers standing mere feet from where children lay bleeding out sparked intense rage, and a scathing Department of Justice report released on Jan. 18 found “cascading failures” with the department’s response.

Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese speaks about the Monterey Park mass shooting during a news conference outside the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles Monday, Jan 23, 2023. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Monterey Park Police Chief Scott Wiese speaks about the Monterey Park mass shooting during a news conference outside the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles Monday, Jan 23, 2023. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Officers in Monterey Park arrived at the ballroom just minutes after Tran left. They went inside as they were supposed to do, Wiese said. Officers had participated in active shooter training just days earlier.

“Uvalde was a very sobering experience for every cop in the country,” Wiese said. “We, in law enforcement, cannot believe the mistakes that were made. Our job is 99% mundane, and it’s one percent of chaos. The problem is that in that one percent, you have to do it right. It has to be done right.”

Mass shootings, still a part of the public conscience and a part of the state’s history, are relatively uncommon in California compared to other states. An analysis by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research center that focuses on gun violence in America, found that California has had about one mass shooting per million residents compared to states like Illinois, which averages 3.6 mass shootings per million residents.

Soon after Tran opened fire in the ballroom, the small and primarily Asian-American city of Monterey Park was thrust into the international spotlight. And Wiese — although he had been working as the department’s chief for several months — had just days earlier been sworn in.

So early in his tenure, Wiese became a member of what he called a “small and terrible fraternity” of police chiefs helming cities in the wake of mass shootings.

When Wiese arrived at the scene, one of his officers walked him through the terrible events of that evening: they walked past a car where 67-year-old Mymy Nhan was shot, and into the ballroom, where bodies, blood, and gun casings lay strewn across the wood floor.

Wiese spotted another one of his officers who had been on the force for just a year and was in her mid-20s.

“My youngest female officer met us inside, and she was processing evidence, looking at the scene, looking at the videos,” Wiese recalls. “I stood there in the middle of the ballroom, and I was looking at these nine murdered people laying in different positions, and she was doing her job, stepping over dead people to get to evidence. … She was a manager at an In-N-Out a year ago, and here she was, in a room full of dead people as a cop. I realized I was really proud of her.”

It was five hours later that the department informed the public that a suspect was on the loose — a decision Wiese has come under scrutiny for in the months since. He stands by his decision.

“We didn’t have a very specific suspect by name, but that developed over the next several hours,” Wiese said. “Initially it was a very vague description, and this is happening at one or two in the morning.”

At about 10 a.m. the morning after the killings, officers in Torrance spotted a white van that matched the description of Tran’s vehicle. Officers pulled the vehicle over, and as a Sheriff’s Department SWAT team began to make make their approach, Tran fatally shot himself in the head.

Almost exactly 12 hours after the shooting, the suspect was dead, and a massive investigation was full-speed ahead as reporters from around the world descended on Monterey Park.

The parking lot behind the dance studio would, for weeks, be filled with news trucks, portable light kits, and dozens of cameras. Community members would gather again and again with tear-stained cheeks and plastic candles, trying to make some sense of what had happened.

The Monterey Park Police Department is significantly smaller than other cities in Los Angeles County, especially when compared to the 10,000 civilian and sworn employees of the LAPD. The department had  interacted with the media on significant stories so rarely that it didn’t have a spokesperson, or media training, according to Wiese.

“It was overwhelming,” Wiese said. “Not a lot happens in Monterey Park. Our relationship with the press wasn’t bad, but it doesn’t exist. Reporters go where the story is, and we were never the story.”

While organizing the media frenzy outside the ballroom, fielding interview requests from news broadcasters Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, and speaking to local reporters at the scene, Wiese also pivoted to the officers who had first responded earlier that night. Most of them had gone home, slept, and returned to work — against Wiese’s advice.

“Initially they said, ‘We’re okay, sir,’” Wiese said. “I opened up about my own trauma, and they started to break down a little bit. Three hours later, they all went home. That was the first time we got to debrief them, and it was an important night, because it showed them that they can have emotions like human beings.”

One of the lessons Wiese has learned from the shooting is that the ways in which police — and often reporters — identify people affected by violent crime is frequently too rigid.

“There were a lot of people who are connected to the dance studio who might have been there earlier, or who had a close relative who was there, or are somehow associated with that night, but they aren’t what I would consider a victim or a witness, because they weren’t there when bullets were being fired,” Wiese explained. “But they’re still affected by this. … I had to learn about that process, because it was new for us.”

A year later, Wiese said, the department often speaks to people who are coming to terms with that emotional damage, left behind without physical markers.

“What we’ve done in the last year has been an internal assessment to make sure we’re doing that one percent the right way, and externally giving the community the support they need.”

And, as for Wiese himself, he said that he is leaning on family and friends to continue his own recovery from that night.

“I’m doing okay,” Wiese said. “I learned early on that police officers suffer more trauma, and have more issues in their lives, if they internalize the trauma they see. I am a huge advocate for talking about things. I have expressed myself to the point where my demons are out.”

The Star Ballroom and Dance Studio is still standing in Monterey Park, still offering dance classes, its physical presence mostly unchanged. Many places where mass shootings happen are either rebuilt, or demolished entirely. But the ballroom has stayed.

“I can’t drive by that location without thinking of all those people,” Wiese said. “There’s a Bank of America attached to it. If I go to that ATM and pull some cash out, I think about all the lives that were affected that night. I look at myself like a sheepdog that affects the flock. Part of me wishes I could have done more that night to stop that guy before it happened, but I also know that there’s nothing I could have done. But we’re all sheepdogs. And we don’t like for members of the flock to be hurt.”

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