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The Outsized, Critical Role of a Mayor After a Mass Shooting

It can happen anywhere, and it will fall to the mayor to be the “communicator in chief,” setting the tone for the traumatized community’s immediate response and long-term recovery. The time to prepare is now, and resources are available.

Volunteers line up to donate blood after the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. El Paso Mayor Dee Margo was among those giving blood
Volunteers line up to donate blood after the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. El Paso Mayor Dee Margo was among those giving blood. (KTSM)
Three years ago this week, a rifle-wielding gunman killed 23 people and injured another 25 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The man arrested in the mass shooting told police he was targeting Mexicans; it was the deadliest attack on a Hispanic community in modern U.S. history. On that day, Mayor Dee Margo understood the power of communications to guide his community through the trauma of a horrific event and begin the process of healing.

The mayor’s messaging, which highlighted the triumph of love over hate, set the tone for the border city’s immediate response and long-term recovery. It’s a model — a best practice — for other mayors, whose outsized role in a community's response to a mass shooting starts when the first shots are fired. While law enforcement seeks to neutralize the immediate threat, mayors and other local government leaders are responsible for meeting the urgent needs of the community, from public messaging to providing services for the victims and families to planning the community’s long-term recovery.

Mayors and their staffs rarely think about or prepare for such an event. But given the frequency of mass shootings in America today, they would be well advised to begin doing so now.

To better understand the role of mayors and other city leaders when responding to a mass shooting, my team and I researched six cities that have endured such a trauma, including El Paso. We used the experience of Margo and other mayors, city staffers and law enforcement officials, combined with public health resources developed by the CDC, the FBI and other agencies, to develop the Mass Shooting Protocol, a four-page guide that city leaders can turn to during the first 24 hours. We also developed a 200-page supplemental resource, the Mass Shooting Playbook, which city leaders can use to prepare, to respond and to help their community recover.

As the principal elected representative, the mayor serves as the city's “communicator in chief.” Mayor Margo’s healing messages began at the first press conference. He was in Austin at the time of the shooting on Aug. 3, 2019. When he heard the news, he immediately returned to El Paso. After a law enforcement briefing, he participated in the first press conference, seven hours after the shooting, where he emphasized that “hate will never triumph over love.” After that, he delivered daily press briefings with the chief of police. As explained in the Playbook’s communications chapter, and as Margo demonstrated, city leaders should participate in regularly scheduled press conferences with law enforcement officials to provide public safety assurances, updates about the victims, referrals to resources and messages of healing and unity.

Through his words and deeds, Margo made clear that his focus was on the victims. For example, at a bilingual vigil attended by 8,000 community members from both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border shortly after the shooting, he promoted unity, saying that the victims “represent generations of El Pasoans and Mexicans that have lived in unity and harmony throughout our 350-year history.”
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo talks to the press after the Walmart mass shooting.
Mayor Margo talks to the press after the Walmart mass shooting. (GlobalNews)
Margo also advocated for the victims behind the scenes. He urged law enforcement officials to expedite crime scene processing so that the victims’ families could receive death notices quickly. He met with the families at the reunification center established at a local school and visited injured victims in the hospital. He donated blood the day after the shooting, thanked other donors standing in line with him in the 100-degree heat, and described the overwhelming response to the request for blood donations as a moving demonstration of his community’s unity in the face of crisis.

Importantly, Mayor Margo avoided partisan rhetoric. When President Donald Trump announced his plan to visit El Paso four days after the shooting, his visit was opposed by some elected officials and residents. Nevertheless, the mayor welcomed the president, seeing facilitating the visit as an essential part of his mayoral duties. He used the opportunity to ask for “any and all federal resources available” to aid the response and recovery, and arranged for the president to meet with first responders to thank them. When the mayor was interviewed about the visit, he emphasized the importance of focusing on the needs of the victims and remaining nonpartisan. As he explained, “I represent all of El Paso.”

By contrast, the heated exchange between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke after the recent Uvalde school shooting illustrates the importance of avoiding political statements. Experienced mayors told us that such statements, even if well-intentioned, can further traumatize and divide a grieving community.

Three years after the El Paso shooting, the accused shooter has yet to face trial. When the trial takes place, possibly next summer, it will surely be a source of renewed pain for the people of El Paso. Although no longer serving as El Paso’s mayor, Dee Margo continues to use his voice to comfort his community and others reeling from the agony of a mass shooting.

Sarah C. Peck is the director of UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. She is a co-author of the Mass Shooting Protocol and Playbook.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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