For the fifth consecutive year, Jersey City police and emergency service personnel participated in an active shooter drill to prepare for an event where an actual shooting occurs in a densely populated location.
Back in January, the Jersey City Police Department had to respond to a very real shooting at the Newport Mall, where two victims were wounded.
According to Public Safety Director James Shea, the training that first responders received from its crime management vendor, Tomahawk Security Solutions, was essential in the department’s quick response and ultimate apprehension of the shooter.
“The training has been a value when we actually had an incident in the mall, and all of our responding officers actually have been through drills, and were familiar with the ground, and familiar with working with the people in the mall,” Shea said.
He noted that Jersey City is perhaps the first city in the country to have practiced training in a location, the NewPort Mall, that subsequently was the site of a real life shooting event.
Just this weekend, another mass shooting occurred in a prominent location- the Chabad of Poway Synagogue near San Diego, California.
We followed up with Shea for his reaction and the implications of events like these on the local level.
“Absolutely, we see events happening all across the world, we see events in countries that have very strict gun laws and no gun availability to people and we have massive attacks involving edged weapons and such,” he began.
“Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the world that we live in now, they seem more common. And we study them extensively to get our police department ready for them, and there’s no question that there’s been a curve up since 2000 up to now of these kinds of mass attacks.
“I think that no matter what the laws are in this country, until we can account for why these are happening and increasing, I think that time spent practicing for these events is time well spent.”
According to Shea, the city partners with Tomahawk Security Solutions for three trainings per year and they are aiming to increase that to four.
Michael Biller is the president, as well as one of the co-founders, of Tomahawk Security Solutions, an eclectic group of former military, police and special operations forces personnel.
His resume includes 13 years with special ops, leading combat missions in Iraq and other worldwide battlefields.
He noted the time and preparation it takes for the company to create lifelike active shooter environments so that police departments and other first responders gain the most experience and knowledge on how to respond and eliminate the threat.
“These typically take us 12 plus weeks to plan because what we like to do is gain from the city, in regards to the patrol force response, to really work [inaudible] rescue task force concepts in conjunction with paramedics and fire departments,” Biller explained.
“The way that we plan these is based around how the city is postured at the time, and then we come in early and work with the location personnel so that we can test and evaluate their security policy and procedures, so that they benefit from this as well.”
Shea was quick to note after Biller’s remarks that the city pays for the training because they want to make sure that no one misses real-life training due to a tight budget.
“St. Peters provided their teachers (as actors) and their location, but we pay for the training. The reason we hire a vendor is because we’ve studied training all around the country and the best possible training is when you have an outside company come in with their expertise to prepare a training that you’re not ready for,” Shea added.
He emphasized that the company goes to great lengths to keep those participating in the drill unaware of what they will encounter.
“All of our officers and all of the St. Peter’s security, they don’t know what’s going to happen once the drill begins. All of our patrol officers just get a 911 call to respond to this address. It’s made as realistic as possible. We’ve done training before, but when you do scripted training you don’t make the mistakes that you’d like to make in training, and not in real life. When you make the training really like real life, that’s when you find those errors and able to fix them.”
He didn’t specify the amount of money that the city pays a vendor like Tomahawk, but noted that some of those expenses are offset by a state initiative, the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which receives grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
More than 50 actors sacrificed their Saturday afternoon to participate in the drill, some of them parents of students who attend the school.
One parent, Billie West, was visibly covered with blood and a gunshot wound, thanks to the expert work of a special effects makeup artist, said it was important for her to participate.
“This was scary, and I knew it wasn’t real. I can just imagine how other people in real-life shootings felt and reacted to it. It just seems so surreal. I don’t know what I would do,” West stated.