Mullen reflects on Charleston church shooting during Student Affairs presentation
The details are still fresh in his mind.
The phone call he received at 9:28 p.m.
Hurrying to the scene minutes later, where he was first greeted by Mitch Lucas of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.
Finding himself alone at the command post for the first time at 4 a.m. the next morning and praying, “Just don’t let me mess this up.”
The night of June 17, 2015 and the weeks that ensued will forever serve as a reminder of a horrific tragedy for Clemson University Associate Vice President for Public Safety and Chief of Police Greg Mullen.
When he took the call, he was in a state of disbelief upon hearing the news nine people had been murdered during a mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mullen, chief of police for the City of Charleston at the time, reflected on his first-hand experience Wednesday in front of 75 colleagues from Student Affairs, delivering a powerful presentation on the importance of fostering and embracing a sense of community.
“It’s always an honor for me to talk about this experience,” he explained. “It’s very personal. But it does me good to talk about it, because it impacted me in a big way. The more I can share, to help others understand and to help prevent similar incidents from happening, is a positive that has come from this tragedy.”
Mullen first came to Charleston in October 2006 following more than 20 years as an officer and deputy chief of police in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Similar to what he has done in a short amount of time at Clemson, when he arrived in Charleston, he put his head down and went to work. He scheduled meetings with community and government leaders. He took time to build one-on-one relationships with partners from local law enforcement agencies.
He firmly believes the first nine years he spent as chief of police building connections throughout the greater Charleston community prepared him for what he calls a “defining moment” in a career that spans over 30 years in law enforcement.
“When this event happened, we were already so connected with our partners around us,” he said. “When I arrived on the scene, Mitch asked me ‘What do you need from me?’ I told him I wanted a K-9 unit to help set up a perimeter around the church, looking out, because we didn’t know where this individual was or if more than one person was responsible. I trusted Mitch was going to do what I asked him to do. We had developed that trust over time.”
Speaking candidly about the event Wednesday in the Hendrix Student Center, Mullen said three pillars were critical to building a system of community:
- Collaboration and cooperation
- Communication and connection
- Incident command
Mullen spoke at length on the importance of incident command.
“It’s a structure that allows us to have some organization during an event,” he said. “It puts a hierarchy in place and establishes roles. We deal with a lot of layers — and I’m finding it is very similar here on a college campus. If you don’t have defined roles, it creates chaos when dealing with an incident.”
The night of June 17 — in the span of about two and a half hours — he arrived on site and moved incident command from the back of a Chevrolet Tahoe to a mobile command post before establishing the Emergency Operations Center. At the same time, community partners had established a Family Assistance Center for grief support and counseling.
Despite the fact Charleston had 458 police officers, it wasn’t enough to be able to handle an event the magnitude of the church shooting. The police department received support from the local government. Recreation department staff helped out in the Family Assistance Center. Public service workers put out barricades. Fire and EMS worked with rehab in the days and weeks that followed because of the sheer volume (in excess of 10,000 per day) of visitors to the church during extreme temperatures. It reiterated the need for building community connections, and Mullen is well on his way of establishing the same at Clemson.
As Mullen turned the focus of his presentation to key takeaways from the incident, the room hung on his every word as he vividly recalled details from the days following the shooting.
“Without a doubt, the response of the families was what made the Charleston incident different,” he said. “I was in the room with the families of the nine victims at the bond hearing for this individual. I was very nervous and anxious and felt strongly the response was going to be anger and a lot of emotion.
“The first family member got up and walked to the podium. She was looking at a video of this individual in a jail cell, and the first words out of her mouth to him were, ‘I forgive you.’ In that moment, it was really quiet. Every person after that said the same thing, and it set the tone for the community response.”
Three days after the shooting, an estimated 12,000 people from all walks of life took to the Cooper River Bridge to honor the wishes of those families to come together as a unified community.
Mullen also went on to explain it was the communication and connection that allowed a region embedded in two high-profile race related events — the controversial shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston was two months earlier — to deescalate a potential situation.
“What helped the most in Charleston was our authenticity,” he said. “The community knew we really cared about what was happening, and that we were hurting with them.”
As is standard practice anytime he’s asked to speak on this emotional topic, Mullen concluded his presentation with a slide showing head shots of the nine victims — Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. One by one, he acknowledged each of them — as well as the five survivors — from a night he’ll never forget.
The Clemson University Police Department is undergoing a transition similar to the one Mullen initiated when he took over as chief of police in Charleston. He said Wednesday he wants to demonstrate the type of community he desires to build within the organization not only through words, but also his actions.
After 30 years in the profession, he constantly reminds himself of the ‘Why’ he continues to work in public safety. For Mullen, it can be traced back to the moment he found himself alone in prayer at the Emergency Operations Center the morning of June 18 following the shooting.
“My community was depending on me,” he said. “And now you are depending on me. My promise to you and the Clemson community is to do everything I possibly can to make sure we prevent things from happening. And if something does happen, we’ll be prepared.”
And that’s why Greg Mullen found himself at Clemson.