EWING — Armed with modified guns loaded with soap bullets, a team of helmeted sheriff’s officers and campus police made their way up a staircase at The College of New Jersey, preparing to encounter a gunman, or at least someone playing one. They secured the stairs to the second floor of Bliss Hall and worked their way down the hallway toward a room where the sound of gunfire blared from a radio. They heard calls for help and pounding on the walls.“He’s shooting us!” a voice yelled from the room.“Hurry up!” another cried out.“Help!”Trailed by a State Police sergeant who was helping run the exercise yesterday morning, the officers approached a room at the end of the hall, checking empty classrooms and moving forward quickly as a team, just as they had been instructed.“We don’t have many advantages, because they know we’re coming,” Sgt. Chris Maskello told the officers.A man ran out from a classroom, screaming. He was unarmed, but in the confusion he was shot several times, red soap splattering on his sweatshirt.
The officers entered the room, finding several people sitting at desks and the killer crouched behind the teacher’s lectern, holding a rifle and clad in body armor. Yellow and red bullets flew across the room, taking down another two unarmed people and the killer.
The “active killer” simulations at TCNJ are being run by the State Police this week to prepare campus and Mercer County sheriff’s officers to respond to shootings in public areas like shopping malls and college campuses, State Police Sgt. Michael Ambrosio said. All officers in New Jersey must undergo such training, he said. It’s the second year the college has hosted the simulations.
New this year were GoPro cameras attached to helmets worn by the lead officer in each simulation and the troopers playing the killers. A college staffer also shot video of the simulations at same time. The footage was reviewed after the morning’s simulations ended.
“Going through this sort of thing prepares you for a circumstance you don’t ever want to deal with, and seeing the video element is great because you can critique the mistakes,” said college spokesman Matthew Golden, who was caught in the crossfire during one simulation as he lay motionless on the ground.
“They shot me when I was already dead,” he said.
Several State Police troopers also played the roles of innocent bystanders and killers armed with guns and body armor. All the participants were required to wear helmets and neck protectors, and encouraged to wear heavy clothing to avoid bruises from the soap bullets.
During the final simulation of the morning, a trooper acting as a bystander started playing a piano in the classroom, complaining loudly of cramped knuckles. As soap bullets flew he ducked out of the way, still playing his tune until the simulation ended.
A few minutes later, the officers watched the camera footage and had their performance reviewed by Maskello.
“We’re not here to bust anybody’s chops. We’re certainly not experts, but any critique is just that,” Maskello said. “You have to be confident in your abilities to get the job done.”
All of TCNJ’s campus police officers will go through the training sessions, Chief John Collins said.
“The idea is that if they have to do it in real life, they can react to it,” Collins said.
Ideally, schools would practice active killer drills with students the same ways they practice fire drills, so that students would know how to protect themselves in such situations, Ambrosio said.
“The guns are already out there. People need to know what to do,” he said.
As each simulation began, officers did not know how many active shooters or bystanders were involved or where in the building the shooting was taking place.
“You have to improvise and overcome because that’s how it is in real life,” Ambrosio said.
Each simulation required the sheriff’s officers and campus police to go from the first floor to the second and down the length of a hallway, verifying the safety of rooms as they went.
“It was very impressive, I think, for two organizations that haven’t worked together before. That’s a great job,” Ambrosio said.
In real-life dangerous situations, the college uses an alert system called Send Word Now to notify the campus community of threats, Golden said. It includes text message alerts, email, voice messages, a hotline and a message on the school’s website, Golden said.
“So we have always try to have a bunch of different systems in case one goes down,” Golden said.
The final day of training will be held at TCNJ today. Collins said he hoped the officers would use the experience as a learning tool.
“At the very least if practice is what you got out of it, you can’t ask for more than that,” Maskello said. “You can’t get enough of it.”
Contact Alyssa Mease at firstname.lastname@example.org or (609) 989-5673.