Surprises, Frustrations, Lucky Breaks: Lessons From NJ Mall Shooting

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When a 20-year-old white male, dressed in black and wearing a black motorcycle helmet, stepped through the door with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle, it turned out to be a lucky night for police and patrons at New Jersey’s largest shopping mall.

Starting at about 1730 hours Nov. 4, the gunman randomly fired multiple rounds as he roamed through the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, shooting at security cameras, advertising signs, and haphazardly into the air, spreading panic with every step. But his only human target was himself. Eventually in a secluded part of the 2.1-million-square-foot complex, he squeezed off a killing shot to his head.

An estimated 250 LEOs from 20 different agencies swarmed to the scene to hunt him down after the first 911 call. For them it became a rare exercise: an extended, full-scale, real-world active-shooter call-out, with a zero casualty count among the innocent. In effect, a unique on-the-job training operation.

Among the responders was a Force Science News subscriber, a veteran cop and firearms trainer we’ll call Dave K. Recently, on condition of anonymity, he shared his candid observations on the experience from the perspective of a boots-on-the-ground officer.

Here are highlights of his surprises, frustrations, and lessons learned while helping to handle the first active-shooter event of his 17-year career.

SENSORY OVERLOAD

“Malls suck to clear,” says Dave K. In the Plaza, nearly 350 stores and a cineplex are arrayed along two enclosed tiers. When he arrived, the gunman was still at large in this vast maze, precise location unknown.

Along with a cluster of officers from his department who formed up together, Dave was told by a chief from another agency “who seemed to be directing people” to check out a remote section in the cavernous complex that had not yet been secured or evacuated.

Although their objective was perhaps half a mile away, Dave estimates, “and everyone was cranked up to get there, we consciously held back from an all-out sprint, both for tactical reasons and to avoid being physically spent when we got there.”

Once inside, he says he and the others were “bombarded with a stimulus overload.”

“Everything in a mall is designed to grab your attention,” he explains. “Mannequins are everywhere. You catch them in your peripheral vision or straight ahead when you’re scanning, and in your heightened state of alertness, they look like real people just standing there motionless.

“You’re trying to take in and evaluate information quickly, and the mannequins start playing with your mind. It was very frustrating the inordinate amount of time I had to spend looking at something to define it.”

The profusion of mirrors added to the distraction and confusion. Moving through one store, he says, “I was startled by my own reflection and almost shot it.” Also “wreaking havoc on perceptions” at times was glare reflecting off of large glass surfaces from strong commercial lighting and through skylights from helicopters sweeping the mall’s roof.

DISRUPTIVE PROTOCOL

At one point, with the suspect still at large, all officers from Dave K.’s agency who were on-scene were ordered to abandon what they were doing and report to the CP. “Someone had decided we needed to sign in for purposes of accountability,” he says. “That might have been well and good at some point, but it was contrary to our training and badly timed. We were pissed.”

Once registered, officers waited around the CP for redeployment. “If you don’t give people a job that occupies their mind, it’s amazing how fast the level of alertness starts to drop,” Dave says. “Pretty soon officers had their hands in their pockets, smokin’ and jokin’. The complacency was unbelievable, with civilians still inside the mall, the shooter still not found,” and a shadowy parking lot just steps away “jammed with vehicles and onlookers who hadn’t at all been screened!”

HOT ZONE CP

Dave K. notes that the CP was set up in a lobby area of the mall–just inside the doorway the gunman used when he entered. “In my opinion, that was in the hot zone, and it was packed with brass,” Dave says. “The shooter could easily have come back there. Yet except for a mall security guard, there was no perimeter protection.”

On an impromptu basis, Dave “grabbed” a cadre of officers to fill that function. “Don’t stand around waiting for something to happen,” he advises. “Support the mission as best you can, but never hesitate to exercise individual initiative when necessary.”

He also expressed concern to some of the command personnel about the possibility of IEDs having been planted in the area as secondary assault weapons. “I’d had some counter-terrorism training that emphasized that kind of threat,” he says. But his concern was “just dismissed” without consideration.

He says, ruefully: “Don’t expect your superiors to know what kind of training they sent you to so you could deal with situations like that. They may not know how to implement it anyway, because they won’t know what it entailed and won’t have the time or presence of mind to absorb and apply it at the moment of crisis.”

Dave estimates it took “about an hour” before command personnel formulated and implemented a formal strategy for canvassing the mall. “Each agency present was assigned a specific area to evacuate,” he says. “Many stores were in lock-down. It was a long and tedious process,” and the perceptual distortions mentioned earlier constituted a continuing impediment.

In Dave’s area, officers found shattered glass, spent rifle shells, and a bullet hole in an advertising display–evidence that the shooter had passed that way. As they worked, a distant gunshot rang out. Ironically, it proved to be a negligent discharge of an officer’s shotgun–the only round fired by law enforcement during the call-out.

GRAB & GO

It’s been said that an active-shooter call is a “come-as-you-are war”; whatever equipment you have with you when you exit your patrol car is all you’re likely to have throughout the siege, no matter what challenges you encounter.

Dave K. ran to the mall that night with a well-prepped go-bag on his shoulder and an AR-15 in hand. Most officers he saw had only pistols or shotguns. The AR is his personal weapon that he has kept with him on patrol (unauthorized) for more than a decade because his agency has equipped only a limited number of units officially with urban rifles. “The suspect was believed to be walking around with an AK-47,” he says. “I wasn’t about to go up against him without my AR.”

Among the items he keeps stocked in his go-bag are: a backup pistol, extra magazines for his handguns and rifle, a knife, a tourniquet, QuikClot, Israeli battle dressings, glow sticks, two flashlights, extra batteries, and gloves. The backup gun is in a pouch on the side of the bag, the QuikClot attached to the strap, where they’re easy to reach.

“If there’s something I might need, I bring it with me,” he says. “There are two things I should have added that night: water and something to eat.”

COMMUNICATION SNAFUS

“Our portable radios didn’t work well inside the mall,” Dave says. “There was a lot of static and often the signal was so weak we couldn’t get through to dispatch. Nor could we receive much information as the night progressed.” In the confusion of an evolving situation, some dispatches were inaccurate. Early on, for example, the suspect was described as a black male, Dave says, leading to at least one civilian sitting in his car in the parking lot to be harshly challenged at gunpoint.

“Cell phones worked better than radios, but there are a lot of buttons to push and you have to be accurate to make the call,” he says. “The first thing to go when you’re under stress is your fine motor skills, so making calls can be a lot tougher than you’re used to.”

AFTERMATH

Throughout the night, Dave and other responders searched the far reaches of the mall, hunting for the suspect, releasing frightened customers and employees from locked-down stores, and shepherding them to safety. “Adrenalin overcame fatigue at the time,” he says.

It was before dawn when Dave was on the mall’s second level that he heard voices calling for a bomb tech from somewhere below him. The offender had finally been found deep in an area under construction, dead. A cell phone was discovered near his hand, and it was initially thought he might have tried to remotely detonate an IED, Dave says. In reality, he had texted a final message: “Sorry.”

It appears he may never have intended to kill anyone other than himself. He is believed to have had drug and mental problems and may have hoped that by shooting up the mall he could provoke a suicide-by-cop confrontation.

Although Dave’s long hours at Garden State Plaza never proved to be life-threatening, he says he “really felt the impact” a day later. “My back hurt from carrying around extra gear, I was very exhausted, and I just couldn’t function well,” he says. “At home the next evening, my wife asked me some simple question–about moving furniture or something–and I couldn’t come up with an answer. I just couldn’t process it.”

On reflection he acknowledges, “We were lucky–very, very lucky this time. We weren’t dealing with a terrorist or someone else determined to commit mass murder. We had an opportunity to surface our weaknesses without costing innocent lives.

“I observed many people from many departments perform with great professional skill. There was no hesitation by officers about going into a dangerous place with many unknowns. I was proud to wear the patch of an agency that was part of it. Hopefully, what we learned will sharpen our skills for next time.”

Editor’s note: There are approximately 109,500 malls and shopping centers in the US. With their heavy concentration of largely unprepared civilians in a confined space, they are considered prime targets for attacks. Indeed, according to a report last week by the Reuters news agency, active-shooter incidents at such places have tripled in the last three years.

Are those in your jurisdiction a part of your well-rehearsed planning and training?

Our thanks to firearms expert John Farnam, president of Defense Training International, for helping to facilitate this story. For a detailed account of how one agency conducts exceptional active-shooter training exercises, see a previous Force Science News, accessible at: https://www.forcescience.org/2013/06/how-cops-ems-collaborate-on-innovative-active-shooter-response/

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