A Letter from Boulder After the Mass Shooting

Victim Advocates Comfort the Survivors but Who Will Comfort Them

Credit: Robbie Vitrano

“I see a man on the ground.  The man with the gun put his foot on his shoulder to push him down.  Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Into his head.”

In a city that needs no introduction.  

Boulder, Colorado — perennial “Best,” Fittest,” “Greenest,” “Happiest,” “Most Educated” place to live-lister thanks to a utopian combination of geography, hyperactive bodies and synapses, low BMI, lower crime.

Last Monday afternoon, more people were murdered in Boulder than the previous nine years combined.

My wife, Tricia, was sharing the story of a shaken employee who had taken shelter behind a counter inside the King Soopers grocery store where, on Monday, a man armed with a military-style semiautomatic rifle and pistol shot and killed 10 people. There were no “injured”; everyone who was shot died.

Tricia works as a victim advocate for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, a volunteer first responder role designed to support the cops by allowing them to focus on the crime.  The advocate provides assistance to the victims of a crime or trauma, assuring that their rights are honored.

Employees and shoppers from the store had been brought to a large room at the Boulder Police Department where they were offered coffee, blankets, and access to counseling resources.  Comfort.  Statements were taken. 

“No one cried,” Tricia told me.  “They all stared, numb and glassy-eyed.”

She said the people in the room included a Tibetan man who had recently moved to Colorado “to be in a happier place” and a young girl with her mother.  “We’re supposed to go into a closet,” the little girl had told her mother during the assault, something she had learned in the active shooter drills she had practiced in her elementary school.  She and her mother took shelter in a storage room at the King Soopers.  A 9-year-old child knows how to respond to man in a grocery store with an automatic weapon.

Tricia came home late the Monday night of the shootings. 

She was activated since 2:30 that afternoon when the pager she wears when on-call began to vibrate, displaying a cold, gray-on-gray digital readout: “ACTIVE SHOOTER.”  It was her first day back to on-site duty since the pandemic had relegated all advocate work to phone and Zoom. 

Now, slumped into the couch, her eyes red from the spasms of emotion hidden behind her mask and between the detail work of professional crisis intervention and active listening, she needed comfort.

Tricia is violently empathetic, an excellent listener, and fearless — classic run toward the fire.  Right now there was nothing left, only a thousand-mile stare.

I was useless. 

The best I could do was pour her a glass of wine, throw another log into the stove to keep the chill from our little cabin, squeeze in next to her, and make room for her to talk about what she wanted to talk about.

I told her I was proud of her for having the courage to do this kind of work, that people were fortunate to have someone like her to be with in that fragile period of transition from an unimaginable horror back toward “normal.”  As much as I was pained for the lives lost and the lives forever changed, I was more worried about her.

She has worked as a victim advocate for more than three years.  In that time, she had been called out to crime scenes across the county supporting dozens of victims of domestic abuse, robbery, fraud, dog attacks, and suicide.  Things people were surprised to learn happened in Boulder.  But Colorado is also famous for mass shootings.  Additionally, the suicide rate is more than twice the national average.  This doesn’t seem to be unrelated.

I’ve never been fully comfortable with Tricia’s decision to become a victim advocate.  I worry about her being so intimate with violent acts and people in a state of imbalance.  Weird things happen between fight and flight.  

I know how she shows up, how much she leaves of herself, and how she carries the pain.  Like with the family of a young high school teacher who hung himself from a tree near a popular trailhead.  It was her first month as an advocate.  Tricia was brought to the scene to counsel the family members.  The advocate must be available and they phoned frequently over the following days.  Gut-wrenching and senseless.  A young man full of promise, pushed and alone.  That searing image. I wondered how it registers in her body and if an arm’s length trauma might metastasize.  

Someone needs to do this work and I’m ashamed for wanting to shield Tricia and myself from the ugliness.  I recognize my selfishness. And guilt.  Maybe it’s the exact right toll for living in SmartAsset’s 2017 “Least-Stressed City in America.”

Victim advocate work is also part of police reform, relevant to efforts to shift funding to more appropriate types of law enforcement response and services.  Unsurprising, Boulder has been proactive, and has a well-run, well-funded, highly effective victim assistance system in place.  I was mindful, as the protests and calls to defund the police inflamed, that Tricia is helping to actively model a part of the solution.  Her team spans the political spectrum (Colorado is still a “purple” state), and the thorough training protocols drill the disciplines of unbiased  listening, consultative inquiry, and understanding.  Buzz words, but also uncommon, unpracticed, and perhaps our only hope of crossing angry divides.  

This part is important to Tricia.  She’s a defender, frustratingly crisp about where she lands on a hot social justice debate.  And she knows it.  The advocate work stretches her.  I’m in awe of where she’s willing to go.

The first big energy following the attack, amplified in this far-left town, is for gun control.  I’ve learned that “control” is a conservative dog whistle and the emerging euphemism is “gun safety.”  Regardless, such legislation was rejected only six days prior to the shooting.  That insulting fact will inflame the reform.  It will move.  People here do not wait for things to happen. Our local, state, and federal leaders are among the best anywhere.  They use complete sentences, work together, and prioritize effectively.  

Thankfully, and despite the laments of things lost by many longtime residents (emphasis “old hippies”), solutions are thoughtful and well-vetted.  Boulder is comfortable with complexity, tension, and pluralism.  

However, in the rawness of this moment, toggling problem and symptom, my mind goes to how we’ve given up on our most vulnerable.  The cruel irony has gone cliché to the point that people classified as essential workers in the pandemic are paid the lowest wages, exposed to the most illness and the least safe conditions, the worst health care if at all, and they die.  We keep killing them.  On Monday, these same people found themselves herded into that gray room after the attack.  I’m relieved to know, after that afternoon of hell, some of them sat across from my wife and that they were seen.  Tricia told me how timid and shrunken they appeared, many speaking accented English and likely immigrants, perhaps thinking how dismissed and powerless they are.

There’s a term familiar to people here and weaponized by those irked by Boulder’s cascade of blue ribbons:  The “Boulder Bubble,” a state of enlightened obliviousness encouraged by the bounty of this place.   

Maybe that’s the problem with bubbles; they burst.  Too insulated from raw emotion and everyday messiness — abundance overplayed — the fall becomes too steep, more unexpected and violent.  Ounces of prevention neglected, things broken more severely, hearts included. Seems the trick is to find that center, between the hardness of waiting for the other shoe to drop and blissed-out oblivion, so we don’t miss the signs, and hold the everyday work demanded of people promising a “more perfect union.” Walk and chew gum.

I don’t know how this will impact Boulder and its golden aura, but I suspect it will be changed.  As a relatively new resident, I’m far from qualified to even spitball.  As a native of New Orleans, my heart and one of America’s most violent cities, and as the brother of a murder victim, I know that the many lives touched by the 10 people killed on Monday are the ones who need our full attention right now.  My instinct is that we must also, with fidelity, answer the question of “why?” For us, not for the shooter.  

I won’t say this is more important than the necessary debate of gun regulation.  I get the need to “do something,” but the conditions and behaviors that create this toxic environment fundamentally includes our ability to see and care for vulnerable, troubled, and challenged people.  Out of compassion and deserved dignity, and before one become a “monster.”  Beyond the popular (and often lazy and politicized) correlation between mental health and mass shootings, we need more eyes on the prevalence of stress in our culture.  Its corrosive impacts are well documented with growing research that expands the definition of “public health” to include early childhood care, geography, and violence.  Particularly compelling is the work being done around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the predictability of consequences that include a shortened life expectancy of nearly 20 years for people experiencing multiple ACEs.

Worth a look, now for instance.  Before another bubble bursts.

Correction: Inadvertently, a partially edited version of this story was originally published.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.