Surprises, Frustrations, Lucky Breaks: Police Lessons from NJ Mall shooting

 

Republished with permission from forcescience.org

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.

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 Force Science News #231. CLICK HERE to download a copy.

 

comments

  1. avatar maiko says:

    Police NDs are a good reason to not find yourself in a situation where you’re innocent but being held at gunpoint. …like the innocent guy in the parking lot. At least they didn’t just light him up in his car like the LAPD did not too long ago.

    1. avatar C says:

      Good thing there were no pet stores either.

      (Obligatory shot dog joke.)

  2. avatar John Boch says:

    Outstanding article.

  3. avatar Leadbelly says:

    Make ’em paint all the mannequins bright colors – like Airsoft guns.

    1. avatar bobmcd says:

      Might be an idea, but a smart bad guy will then wear an orange ski mask and stand very still until the moment he shoots a passing cop.

      The real problem is an hours-long shoot-don’t-shoot drill with a very cluttered 360-degree background. No good solution.

      1. avatar B says:

        Pump OC gas into the ventilation system. Leave a section clear overwatched by gas mask cops to funnel the bad guy out to waiting police. Even if they have a gas mask it will probably run out faster than that mall clearing took.

        1. avatar Jus Bill says:

          And how many injuries/deaths will you accept as tolerable during the inevitable sheeple stampede? See India, etc.

  4. avatar DisThunder says:

    Interesting quote here:
    “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.”
    Meaning what, they have gone from one-to-four? I hate junk observations like that.
    Reading this made my head hurt. It sounds like this guy had his game face on, but clearly you buy cops some cool tactical gear and send them to a Blackwater range for a few hours and they’ll immediately disregard all that situational awareness crap and run back to sign their timecards at the first opportunity.

      1. avatar Ruun says:

        And now I’m gonna lose 3 hours of my life reading xkcd.

        1. avatar Matt in FL says:

          If you have a smartphone, there’s an app called xkcdViewer. It’s good stuff.

  5. avatar DJ says:

    Glad the police were afforded this valuable training opportunity/LFX.

  6. avatar miserylovescompany says:

    I think I’ve said it about 10,000 times today, but I’ll say it one more time…you are on your own. And that’s just the way it should be.

    Other than that, interesting read but mostly irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.

    Tom

    1. avatar Cliff H says:

      It is a good training opportunity for POTG as well. If you find yourself in a mall, etc., in such a situation, and you are armed, be aware that even if you never see a target there are dozens if not more very tense LEOs looking for ANYONE with a gun. Act accordingly.

  7. avatar greatUnknown says:

    “…finger on the trigger of an assault rifle”? In an article facilitated by a “firearms expert.” Wasn’t it a just a tricked-out 22 ?

    1. avatar Pascal says:

      It was, but they did not know that

  8. avatar bontai Joe says:

    One food pack I carry around is “Pop Tarts”. They are sealed 2 in an air tight package, and 3 or 4 packages to a box. Light weight, a decent amount of calories and they have a long shelf life. Another nice thing is that they are cheap.

    1. avatar Barstow Cowboy says:

      Are there tactical pop tarts? You know, for operators?

      1. avatar BillC says:

        With tactical sprinkles filled with tactical strawberries.

      2. avatar Paul W says:

        It’s a tactical sugar rush, designed to give you mind numbing hyperness when needed most.

      3. avatar Jus Bill says:

        NOTICE:

        “L-shaped” Pop Tarts must be registered with the state of Maryland and are prohibited in some progressive school systems. They are also prohibited in California and New York.

  9. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

    Good reading.
    Geez, the mannequins in the stores. Sensory overload for sure.
    A forced, impromptu training session with a huge learning curve. During and after it seems.

    1. avatar Hannibal says:

      Imagine having to clear a darkened arcade / fun center. Nightmare fuel.

  10. avatar Ryan says:

    As a security guard who works for Westfield and was at the garden state plaza mall that day. The police response was a shit show. There were several swat teams who essentially all worked independently with no communications to each other. But, since I was in the great state of new jersey I was left guarding the doors unarmed. The entire situation goes to show that malls will always be soft targets unless policy is changed.

  11. avatar Independent George says:

    Those were some great observations, which means that they will likely be ignored.

    The brass that cluttered the command post and micromanaged the officers on scene will be given medals and commendations for their effective leadership. The ND will be whitewashed. For revealing this information to the public, the officer with the Go-bag will be written up and disciplined for using an unauthorized weapon (and based on his account, he will be easy to identify as the only guy with an AR).

  12. avatar Jonathan -- Houston says:

    Sounds about like you’d expect, I suppose. Whether it’s this, the cluster that was the NOPD’s handling of Katrina’s aftermath, or even Texas’ handling of the evacuation during Rita, there will always be these tales of disorganization, miscommunication, uneven preparation and all around mediocre execution by the “authorities.”

    All they have over any of us individually are greater numbers and bigger budgets. Yet, cases of active shooters shut down by concealed carrying civilians generally end more quickly and with a lower body count than those whose resolution hinged on the authorities.

    Be safe out there, folks, and just realize that in the moments that count, you can only count on yourselves.

  13. avatar Aragorn says:

    Excellent article.

    Perhaps this site could put together a materials list for a Go-Bag vs. a Bug-Out Bag and make it a sticky. Would make for a nice project and help untold amounts of readers.

  14. avatar Gregolas says:

    Excellent article. I’d never thought about the possible sensory overload factor. Mannequins suddenly becoming apparent bad guys, mirrors, and bright lights and colors. something to think about. From now on, I’m going to look at our local malls with new eyes.
    BTW, I saw an article on a prepper site that said a packet of instant mashed potatoes works just as well as Quik-Clot, and ER docs can rinse it off with water.
    Has anyone else heard this? Any thoughts?

    1. avatar BillC says:

      New quick clot doesn’t have the problems of the old quick clot, and it comes in gauze form. I have that, I’m not trusting mashed potatoes, unless it’s for my mouth.

  15. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Executive summary: you, the tax-paying citizen, have been paying for a bunch of thoroughly incompetent goofballs to pretend to “serve and protect.”

    Sign-in sheets at an active shooter scene. What a farce.

  16. avatar anonoymous says:

    I was in the Army and then worked for the military before retiring. Most senior officers above the rank of major don’t have any idea about sop’s, protocols, equipment available or how to use communications (portable radios) properly. But in the military the senior officer is in charge.

    They “don’t have time” for training, so the grunts know more than they do. I was the emergency evaluation team chief (for exercises – plane crash, fire, ied, etc.) for a base. They were supposed to be held every 4 months. Senior management insisted on simulations in many cases as actually doing things took away from real work. They didn’t like me as I wanted NO simulations. When we had no simulations, it was a cluster.

    Had a Wing Commander dress down a fire chief, who worked for me because the chief ordered a building evacuation because someone collapsed from fumes (with HVAC operating, that is the protocol), the Wing commander stopped the evacuation.

    It does not surprise me that senior management is clueless, they are too busy being politically correct, paperwork and kissing everybodys ass.

    In the blizzard of 1977 ( for you old folks), the Army sent up a northern (supposed to work in the north country but politics kept them in the south) engineer unit to clear snow and streets. Their radiators froze, they had no cabs on equipment and if the front end loaders, trucks and bulldozers froze up or broke, they had to fly them back to GA as they had no way of getting them repaired in Buffalo. BUT, it looked good on TV with the C5’s bring in the equipment and taking it home.

    NO simulations!

    1. avatar bobmcd says:

      Ripley: How many drops for you is this, lieutenant?
      Gorman: Thirty-eight. Simulated.
      Vasquez: How many combat drops?
      Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

      1. avatar peirsonb says:

        Absolute classic….

  17. avatar Independent George says:

    Anybody else enjoy the morbid humor of a man trying to commit suicide by cop, but unable to find a cop because of bureaucratic inertia?

  18. avatar Leo Atrox says:

    “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.” ”

    “Hot zone” my butt. That’s part of the crime scene! You can’t setup a CP inside a crime scene. You end up obliterating evidence there.

    Great “lessons learned” in the AAR. I’m sure that the findings for this event will be disseminated around the world to help officers deal with these situations in the future.

  19. avatar kprice says:

    Assault rifle? Don’t all rifles have the potential to assault? Not sure why the author choose to use that term. Don’t we get enough of that bullshit euphemism?

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

button to share on facebook
button to tweet
button to share via email