It was around 9 a.m. when the call came in to the police. A gunman had shot people on the campus of Mercer County Community College on Old Trenton Road, and the suspect was still at large — a man dressed in black with a gray hat, armed with a pistol.
Minutes later police stormed into the hallways of the college’s Engineering and Technology building, first patrol officers in small groups, and later full SWAT teams in body armor, guns drawn. A police dog barked and lunged, straining against its leash, its paws skittering on blood-soaked linoleum tiles.
Wounded victims lay in the hallway. “Help! Help me!” The cops ignored them and rushed to find and confront the assailant, in one case tripping over a man with a bullet hole in his arm. People ran toward the police teams, screaming, panicking, rushing to the exits. Medics, also in bulletproof vests, came in shortly behind the officers to triage the wounded and carry the victims to safety.
The SWAT teams pressed farther into the building and somewhere the cops found their man. There was shouting and the clatter of gunfire, and then it was over. The exercise was over. This time, it was just a drill.
If “mass” shootings are defined as episodes in which four or more people are killed or wounded, there were 372 such shootings in the U.S. in 2015, according to the nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive. Those shootings killed 475 people and wounded 1,870. Workplaces were among the most prominent locations of these mass shootings, as well as for individual murders. In 2013 397 people were murdered at work, more than died from fire or explosions.
The exercise at Mercer County Community College, held on March 14, involved police from West Windsor and surrounding communities as well as campus security personnel. The “victims” were all recruits from the Mercer County Police Academy. It was similar to a drill held last year at Carnegie Center, which helped police from different departments practice how to work together to respond to hostage and active shooter situations while at the same time familiarizing them with the layout of buildings in case there were a real emergency there.
As mass shootings, at more than one per day, have become routine police training for them has become routine, and more and more businesses have been forced to make their own plans to confront workplace violence. On Wednesday, March 30, the law firm Norris McLaughlin & Marcus will host a free seminar on active shooters and workplace violence. The seminar will take place from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the firm’s office at 721 Route 202-206, Suite 200, in Bridgewater, and will feature presentations from lawyers David E. Cassidy, Keya C. Denner, and security experts Barry Brandman and Jack DeLorenzo. For more information, visit www.nmlaw.com/events.
Brandman, who owns Fair Lawn-based Danbee Investigations, a security company, has helped many companies prepare for and deal with the aftermath of outbursts of violence. According to Brandman, knowing how to prevent an incident is just as crucial as knowing what to do if bullets fly.
“One area that gets overlooked, and it’s a critical component to mitigating risk, is being proactive,” Brandman says. “Not just knowing what to do if you find yourself in a building and you hear gunshots,” Brandman says. “If you look forensically at all of these workplace shootings, there were definitely red flags that companies saw and failed to react to.”
Managing risk covers everything from parking lot fistfights to someone going on a rampage with a gun. Brandman says there are steps any company can take to reduce the risk or minimize the damage in a worst-case scenario.
Risk mitigation begins at hiring, Brandman says.
On February 25 of this year Cedric Larry Ford, a painter at Excel Industries in Hesson, Kansas, entered the factory where he worked carrying an AK-47-style assault rifle. He raised the gun, hesitated for a moment, and then began shooting into an assembly line where workers were making lawnmower parts. By the time a police officer shot and killed Ford, three people were dead and 14 others injured.
That kind of incident could be avoided with stricter screening procedures, Brandman says. At the time of the shootings, Ford was on probation for a series of felonies in Miami, some of them violent and some related to firearms. “This individual had criminal tendencies and violent tendencies,” Brandman said. A comprehensive background check would have revealed the recent violent convictions, but that’s only half the story. To be effective, screening procedures have to be calibrated to disqualify anyone who poses a risk of violence.
“We have had some company executives that we’ve dealt with who are big believers in giving second chances. But I think that needs to be counterbalanced with reasonable prudence if an individual within the last three to five years has shown propensity for violent behavior,” Brandman said.
Brandman says employers should get legal advice to make sure their hiring procedures follow all local laws. For example, in New Jersey, background checks are allowed but employers cannot ask on initial contact if an applicant has a felony record, thanks to recent “ban the box” legislation designed to give reformed criminals a fair chance to re-enter society.
Brandman also advises companies to follow up on employees if there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion, after they are hired, to see if they have committed any violent crimes or firearms violations. “Let’s assume an employee gets into a heated argument with a coworker and makes threats. That would be probable cause, and they may want to look into the individual and see if there’s been any criminal activity,” Brandman said.
Exit Strategies: A second critical point in preventing violence comes when employees quit or are fired. Brandman said HR personnel who conduct exit interviews should be trained to recognize signs that the person leaving the company poses a threat. Signs include the person expressing high emotion, anger, and extreme vindictiveness. “They want to look out for aggressive or inflammatory language,” Brandman said.
Another red flag is that the person feels they have been disrespected or insulted by others because of ethnicity or religious beliefs. “These are not emotions that will come out during a standard exit interview,” Brandman said.
“While these are not slam dunks that an individual is going to return to the company as an active shooter — and in the overwhelming majority of the cases they don’t — it’s important to understand that they should not be summarily dismissed either.”
Instead, depending on the severity of the employee’s statements and their perceived state of mind, HR should talk to upper management or legal counsel about taking extra safety measures. Extra steps could include temporarily having an armed guard or off-duty police officer posted in the building, or notifying local police about their concerns. In some cases, the police may even arrest the person on the spot if they approach the subject and he responds by threatening them.
The Value of Anonymity: Danbee Investigations runs a hotline where employees can call and leave anonymous tips if they feel another person at their company poses a threat. The hotline never takes the name of the tipster, and since it’s a third-party service, no one recognizes their voice. Brandman said the hotline has been effective in defusing a number of potentially violent situations.
A secure workplace: Many companies have security systems where every employee is given a unique key-card that unlocks certain doors. But not every company keeps those key-cards up to date. “One of the mistakes companies make is that when individuals leave the company, whether terminated or voluntarily, companies often have a delay in voiding out the cards. Individuals don’t always return the cards or key-fobs, or in some cases they have duplicate cards.” Brandman says in many cases, there can be a three to four-day delay between an employee leaving and the card being deactivated, during which a potentially disgruntled worker could get in. A better policy would be to deactivate cards immediately.
Brandman said another mistake that some companies make is to count on receptionists to call 911 if there is a problem. “If you have a facility with a reception at the front door in the lobby, or if you have backdoor access that allows truckers to freely open up an exterior door and walk over to a desk or a window where they are greeted by an employee, those are critical points in terms of restricting access to a building,” Brandman said.
The employees at those locations should have concealed duress buttons, better known as panic buttons, on the underside of a desk or as a foot pedal. Panic buttons set off an alert for the company’s security provider that will send police immediately to the scene, with backup. Brandman says the alerts will stand out as being more urgent than a typical perimeter alarm.
Although a 911 call would also summon police, Brandman said in the case of an active shooter, the receptionist would have no time to do that. Furthermore, the shooter would likely target anyone picking up a phone. “Picking up the phone and hitting three buttons is more difficult than having a hand under your desk and pressing a button that sends a silent signal to a monitoring system,” Brandman said.
Another security feature that Brandman recommends is cameras with monitors in strategic areas. For example, cameras in the front lobby and loading docks that can be viewed by employees farther in the facility. That way, if someone hears a loud bang, they can check the monitor to see if it was a gunshot or just a car backfiring. If it’s the former, they may have a few precious minutes to respond, by calling the police and running away from the danger.
According to an FBI study of active shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013, many shooting sprees ended quickly. About a quarter ended when the shooter committed suicide at the scene before police even arrived. “You have to make fast decisions that are going to maximize the possibility that your people are going to get out alive,” Brandman said. “An extra 60 seconds can mean the difference between someone getting out to safety, or being caught inside,” Brandman said.
Worst Case Scenario: What if all those measures fail and the worst happens? Brandman said it’s important for companies to have a plan, and that employees are trained to act quickly in case of an active shooter.
“Don’t wait for the uniformed police to show up,” Brandman said. Even if police are called immediately, it can take them several minutes to respond, during which time a shooter could do a huge amount of damage. It can take tens of minutes for heavily armed SWAT teams to arrive.
“It’s not going to be a hostage situation, and the shooter is not barricading himself in the building and looking to negotiate. They are coming in looking to do as much damage as they can in the shortest possible time, so the responsibility is incumbent on the company to develop a plan of what to do.”
Brandman said the plan boils down to three options: run, hide, and fight, in that order. The first option is for everyone to run away via pre-planned escape routes. No going back to lockers or desks, no disconnecting laptops. “Leave it behind and get to the evacuation route as quickly as possible before the shooter can block it,” Brandman said.
If running is impossible, hiding is the next best thing. Getting into a room, turning out the lights, blocking the door, and remaining silent could allow potential victims to evade a shooter. Brandman recommends that if multiple people are hiding in the same place, one person takes the initiative to get everyone to set their cell phones on mute (not vibrate, which can make quite a bit of noise in a quiet environment.) That way, people can still quietly communicate via text.
The last and least preferable option is to fight. Since most shooters act alone, a group of people working together has a fighting chance of subduing an assailant, especially if they make good use of improvised weapons. “There are an array of items inside a typical office that can be used as effective weapons,” Brandman said. If someone sprays the attacker in the face with a fire extinguisher, that might disorient them long enough for others to attack and disarm him. Other weapons could include letter openers, briefcases, and even laptops.
“People are not as helpless as they believe,” Brandman said.
When Police Arrive: When police arrive at the scene, they are there to help, but they are also men and women with guns drawn who can’t automatically distinguish friend from foe. Anyone running towards the police should do so with their hands in the air and fingers spread apart. Cops are trained to look to the hands as a threat, so your odds of getting shot by the good guys go down if you make it clear you are a civilian.
The first police on the scene will also ignore the wounded, as callous as that may seem. Said Brandman: “If they don’t focus on the shooters, then there are going to be a lot more casualties.”
Civilians shouldn’t grab at the police in an effort to get their attention, nor should they engage them in conversation or ask questions. Instead, they should answer any questions the police have for them, and then continue their escape. Even a 30-second delay could mean the difference between people losing their lives or being saved.
Brandman was almost a law enforcement officer himself. When he was a senior at Bowling Green University in Ohio, he was all set to enter FBI training after graduation. “Unfortunately, fate entered the equation,” Brandman said. He tore his ACL playing lacrosse and failed his physical exam. So instead of going into police work, he went into the family business. His father had founded Danbee in 1966.
Today Danbee has grown to be one of the country’s largest security, consulting, and investigative companies, providing services to Fortune 100 companies and prominent law firms. Brandman said Danbee has done many forensic investigations of real active shooter incidents, and that his advice is based on those investigations as well as other research.
“This advice is not instinctive,” Brandman said. “Some of these things are almost counterintuitive. Unless there’s a distinctive and well thought-out plan in place and employees have been educated and trained how to respond, they’ll make some serious mistakes and they’ll panic, and those situations never end well.”