By Chris Rotolo |
RED BANK – On a damp and dreary Sept. 18 morning, a group of local law enforcement officers gathered on the third floor of a Red Bank office building.
The hallways were quiet. Faint bursts of laughter and conversation could be heard behind the closed office doors. It was peaceful.
It’s precisely the setting Middletown Township Police Department Sgt. Kevin Gardiner hoped to create for this session with the Bayshore Active Shooter Training Group.
“We know that if an active shooter event was to happen, the three or four officers some of these departments have on duty is not going to be enough to handle the situation,” Gardiner said during an interview at the Schulz Drive building. “That’s why we’re all banding together, so we won’t only be willing to respond to neighboring towns, but we’ll all be familiar with who we’re working with.”
Composed of officers from smaller precincts spanning the Sandy Hook Bay and surrounding inland communities like Aberdeen, Fair Haven, Hazlet, Holmdel, Red Bank and Rumson, the training group is one of four regional law enforcement collectives trained to respond to active shooter incidents in local schools, as well as businesses, malls, private dwellings and office complexes.
According to Gardiner, the purpose of these regional task forces is to compensate for the small number of rostered officers at individual precincts.
During Tuesday’s training session officers were taken through an educational Power Point presentation, as well as squad training exercises that instruct groups of officers how to maneuver down a hallway and how to enter a room in a squad formation. Trainees were also instructed on how to exercise force in “shoot and no shoot” situations.
Four years ago, regional active shooter training groups began establishing themselves around Monmouth County, with Southern and Western task forces taking form first, followed by the Bayshore outfit. A Central group is now being developed with municipalities like Eatontown, Long Branch and Tinton Falls in the mix.
According to statistics compiled by the FBI, over the past five years there has been an increase in the number of active shooter incidents across the country.
From 2014 to 2015 there were 40 recognized incidents with 231 casualties (excluding the shooters), including 92 deaths.
From 2016 to 2017 there were 50 active shooter events with 943 casualties, including 221 deaths, 13 of which were responding officers.
New Jersey has yet to experience an incident of this level, but surrounding states like New York and Pennsylvania have had two, while Maryland has had three during the 2016-17 time frame, not including the June 28 rampage at the Capital Gazette newspaper headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland, in which five newspaper employees were killed.
Gardiner said the formation of these regional task forces is a response to the increased frequency with which these events are occurring, and though Freehold Township Police Department Lt. Daniel F. Pasquinucci wishes these types of measures weren’t necessary, he understands the urgency with which these task forces must prepare.
“We’re saddened when we hear about active shooter events taking place, but we’re really not surprised anymore,” said Pasquinucci, who leads the Western Monmouth Active Shooter Training Group, which services Colts Neck, Freehold, Manalapan and Marlboro. “Because these incidents happen so frequently, no longer can we wait for something to come from a higher authority at the federal level or state level. We need to prepare on the local level.”
Gardiner stressed that the focus of these training sessions is to make local officers understand the likelihood of an active shooter event is rising.
“They watch the news, they know what’s happening, but their main focus remains on their own day-to-day. I don’t think they really digest that it could happen. Most of these incidents happen in smaller communities. So the mindset has to be that it’s going to happen here, and when it does, we’re going to be ready.”
It is a federal requirement that officers complete these trainings at least once every two years, and that the teachings are enforced by individual departments multiple times per year.
The Bayshore area is composed of several smaller municipalities, like Atlantic Highlands, which has just 19 active duty members in its police force. Officers in departments with smaller numbers have taken part in these active trainings four or five times over the past two years.
Gardiner said the physical training is integral, but it’s the mental side of these exercises that is most important.
“We want to take our officers through the physical training, but a lot of what we’re doing is reinforcing the subconscious,” Gardiner said. “During extreme situations the mind can go into tunnel vision. It’s the reality of the work that we do. If we instill training for the subconscious, when these incidents do occur, our officers can tap into that training and let it take over.”
This article was first published in the Sept. 20 – 26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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