Three dead after gunman storms Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado

Three people have been killed after a gunman armed with a rifle stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and opened fire before an hours-long standoff with police ended when he surrendered.

Two civilians and one police officer died, Colorado Springs police chief Peter Carey told reporters about an hour after the suspect had been arrested.

Another nine people were injured – five police officers and four civilians – but Carey said they were in good condition at area hospitals.

The dead policeman was named as 44-year-old Garrett Swasey, a campus officer for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who responded with city police to the first reports of shots fired.

Some staff escaped harm by following security protocol and hiding in specially designed “safe areas” at the building, reports said.

A Reuters photographer at the scene saw a man in a white T-shirt, with his hands cuffed behind his back, being placed in an unmarked squad car. Authorities said they did not know the suspect’s identity but believed he acted alone.

The shooting unfolded on “an ordinary working day” at the clinic, which provides abortion services and family planning.

Gunshots were first reported at the Planned Parenthood clinic at 11.38am local time, Buckley said. The suspect was believed to be carrying a “long gun” – a term that usually refers to a rifle or shotgun – and also had with him bags and other “items”, possibly including propane tanks, Buckley said.

By 4pm local time, police had begun to evacuate many of the people who were still inside the building. Officers were then able to enter the building and convince the gunman to surrender.

Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers, who commended police for their handling of the “tragedy”, said authorities were able to help guide the movements of officers through the building by watching live feeds from surveillance cameras mounted inside.

A city police spokeswoman, Lieutenant Catherine Buckley, said it took officers a number of hours to establish communication with the suspect before he gave himself up.

“We did get officers inside the building. They were able to shout to the suspect and make communication with him and at that point they were able to get him to surrender and he was taken into custody,” Buckley said.

After his arrest, explosives teams were at the scene, police said, to check for possible booby traps.

The gunfire at the clinic sent people inside racing for cover. Jennifer Motolinia hid behind a table inside the clinic and called her brother, Joan, who said he heard multiple gunshots in the background.

“She was telling me to take care of her babies because she could get killed,” Joan Motolinia said of his sister, the mother of three.

He rushed to the clinic but was frustrated because a police barricade kept him from getting close. “People were shooting for sure. I heard someone shooting. There was a lot of gunfire. She was calm, she was trying to hide from those people,” he said.

Denise Speller, manager of a nearby hair salon, said she heard as many as 20 gunshots in less than five minutes.

She told The Gazette newspaper that she saw two officers near a bank branch, not far from the Planned Parenthood facility. One of the officers appeared to fall to the ground, and the other officer knelt down to help and then tried to get the officer to safety behind a patrol car, she said. Another officer told Speller to seek shelter inside the building.

“We’re still pretty freaked out,” Speller said by telephone while still trapped inside the salon. “We can’t stop shaking.”

Footage from a local station, KKTV, showed police evacuating more than a dozen people, including patients and staff, from the building. People in a nearby shopping center and grocery store were told to “shelter in place”.

Police declined to discuss the gunman’s motivations. But the president of the Rocky Mountains chapter of Planned Parenthood, Vicki Cowart, suggested a climate of rancor surrounding abortion in the United States had set the stage for such violence.

“We share the concerns of many Americans that extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country,” she said.

Cowart told CNN separately that some of the clinic’s staff escaped the gunman by following security protocol and hunkering down in “safe rooms” built into the facility.

The incident elicited a multi-agency response that included Colorado Springs police, the El Paso County sheriff’s department, the regional FBI office and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Officials said victims had been transported to local hospitals. Penrose Hospital & St Francis Medical Center said it had received a total of six patients.

The Colorado Springs clinic has been the target of repeated protests by anti-abortion activists, and in recent years moved to new quarters on the city’s northwest side – a facility derided as a “fortress” by critics of Planned Parenthood.

In Washington, according to protocol, Barack Obama was briefed on the unfolding situation, according to a White House official.

Mayor Suthers paid tribute to the police effort. “It was the most incredible work on behalf of officers trying to minimize the number of fatalities and get this guy in custody.”

The office of Colorado attorney general Cynthia Coffman said: “My thoughts & prayers are with the families of victims on today’s standoff in Colorado Springs. Tragic loss of life.”

Stephanie Simeral, a mother of three who lives two streets behind the Planned Parenthood clinic, said she slipped past the police barricade to get into her home on Friday evening.

“There are protesters there daily, from both sides of the spectrum. We pass it every morning. It’s never been aggressive.”

Vicki Saporta, president and chief executive of the National Abortion Federation, said her organisation had feared such an attack after the release of “highly edited, misleading anti-abortion videos was released in July”.

“This clinic is part of the Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains affiliate, which was featured in one of the highly-edited smear videos released this summer. Since that video, the affiliate has seen an increase in protesters and death threats against one of their doctors.

“Although anti-abortion groups may condemn this type of violence when it happens, the way that they target and demonize providers contributes to a culture where some feel it is justifiable to murder doctors simply because they provide women with the abortion care they need.

“Since 1977, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 186 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities. The last abortion provider was murdered in 2009 when NAF member Dr George Tiller was assassinated in his church in Wichita, Kansas.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for Cowart’s statement.

“Today and every day, we #StandWithPP,” Clinton posted.

In New York City, police were deployed to Planned Parenthood facilities.

As in much of the rest of the country, abortion is a divisive issue in Colorado, figuring prominently in last year’s Senate race between Democrat Mark Udall and Republican challenger Cory Gardner, who won.

Hundreds of protesters picketed in front of the clinic in August as part of a national push to cut off public funding for Planned Parenthood, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette. In 2012, one man was charged with trespassing after flouting as many as 30 warnings to keep off clinic property, the paper said.

Republican presidential candidates have been vociferous proponents of cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood leadership has denied any wrongdoing by staff.

A suspect is taken into custody outside the Planned Parenthood centre in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Friday 27 November. Photograph: STRINGER/Reuters