Island County Sheriff Mark Brown and his wife were inside the women’s Macy’s store at the Cascade Mall in Burlington when a man opened fire and killed five people Sept. 23.
Brown said he was unarmed at the time so he chose not to go after the shooter. Instead, he got his wife out of the store and did what he could to help from the parking lot.
Brown said he didn’t speak publicly about the experience previously because his involvement was minimal and he didn’t want to appear to be bragging.
Brown said he agreed to talk with the Whidbey News-Times to clarify what happened because rumors circulating in the community question his response at the mall.
“In the circumstances, I did what I thought was appropriate at the time,” he said. “To me it made more sense to be a witness, to gather witnesses and keep other people safe by preventing them from going into the store.”
Brown said he often doesn’t wear his badge and gun when he goes out of the county on social occasions, especially if he’s going to be drinking alcohol. In hindsight, however, he wishes he had his revolver at the mall.
“If I had been armed, I certainly would have taken proactive steps,” he said.
Off-duty police officers have no obligation to be armed, said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He said he’s also unaware of any legal requirement for an off-duty officer to respond to a crime in progress in a certain way.
“We can argue all day about moral responsibility,” he said.
Brown said he and his wife, Kathi Phillips, would have been at the counter where the shooting occurred if she hadn’t decided to look at blouses at the last minute.
Brown said they had gone out to eat that night and planned to see the movie “Sully” at the Cascade Mall theater. Just before the movie started, she decided she wanted to look at clothes in Macy’s.
She was in a dressing room and Brown was on a nearby couch when he heard a sound like bubble wrap popping, he said. Then he saw a sales clerk running through the store and telling everyone to leave quickly.
It took him a minute to find his wife, Brown said. They kept low as they quickly went through the store and left through the north entrance.
Brown said he was just 75 to 100 feet from the shooter but didn’t see him. He and his wife exited through a different door than the shooter.
The sheriff immediately called 911 but couldn’t get through because of the volume of calls about the shooting. In the parking lot, he warned drivers to leave, stopped people from entering the stores and gathered witnesses. None of the people he gathered saw the shooter, but one couple saw the “dead people on the floor.”
Brown said the first officer arrived about five minutes from the time he first heard the shots. He told the officer what area the shots came from and the officer ran straight in. Brown continued to direct other officers as they arrived.
Finally, an officer told everyone who didn’t see the shooter to leave, so Brown and Phillips drove home.
The shooting suspect, Oak Harbor resident Arcan Cetin, 20, was arrested the next day near his apartment in Oak Harbor. He allegedly confessed to the killing, but police haven’t disclosed any possible motive, according to court documents.