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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

SWAT Response at Burlington Mall for Man with Umbrella

This morning, police received a single report from two shoppers at the mall that they saw a man with what they believed to be a short rifle, or a rifle case, strapped to his backpack. Police responded and the mall was evacuated, a massive search was conducted for the suspect, numerous people matching the description were stopped and interviewed by the police, etc. In the end, the person in question called the police and explained that he was probably the person they were looking for. The gun turned out to be an umbrella.
People have quite a few questions about what happened, what went right, and what went wrong. I'm going to do my best to answer them.

Q: Why did these women report this?

A: In this day and age, we're constantly told "If you see something, say something". If the person had turned out to have an actual gun, and had shot people, we'd all be blaming them for not making a report. Civilians aren't trained police officers, so should they be held to the same standard? Interestingly, it wasn't always this way. Here's a quote from an FBI publication, Atomic Bombing: How to Protect Yourself, from 1950 (I found it in Bruce Schneier's blog):

Of course, millions of us will go through our lives never seeing a spy or a saboteur going about his business. Thousands of us may, at one time or another, think we see something like that. Only hundreds will be right. It would be foolish for all of us to see enemy agents lurking behind every tree, to become frightened of our own shadows and report them to the F.B.I.
But we are citizens, we might see something which might be useful to the F.B.I. and it is our duty to report what we see. It is also our duty to know what is useful to the F.B.I. and what isn't.
If you think your neighbor has "radical" views -- that is none of your or the F.B.I.'s business. After all, it is the difference in views of our citizens, from the differences between Jefferson and Hamilton to the differences between Truman and Dewey, which have made our country strong.
But if you see your neighbor -- and the views he expresses might seem to agree with yours completely -- commit an act which might lead you to suspect that he might be committing espionage, sabotage or subversion, then report it to the F.B.I.

Even if it is still considered a citizen's duty to know what is useful to the police and what isn't, how much exposure does the average citizen have to guns? Are they expected to know what every type of weapon looks like? This is actually not that uncommon; I once chased down a man specifically reported to have a silver revolver with wood grips in a holster on his belt. When I found him, it turned out to be a large key ring.

Q:  What is wrong with mall security? Those idiots can't tell an umbrella from a gun?

A: As far as I can tell, mall security had nothing to do with this call. The callers reported it directly to the police, and by the time they reported it, the man was already out of site. Mall security helped police to evacuate the mall.

In general, though, mall security guards do not have any special training (although many are retired police, ex-military, etc.). Many also have no police powers, cannot search you or your belongings, and cannot even compel you to stop. If you expect an unarmed guard, working an entry level job for $10 an hour, with no authority, to go running towards a man reported to have a gun and evaluate the situation and handle it as a police officer would, then I have a bridge to sell you.

Q: Why was there such a massive response? I heard on the radio there were four police helicopters!

A: First of all, there was only one police helicopter on scene, MSP Air 2. The rest were all from news stations.

I believe the main component behind todays response was that no one knew where the individual might be. So, worst case scenario, you have an armed man, possibly hiding somewhere in the mall, possibly in a nearby building, or maybe walking around. It takes a massive amount of manpower to be able to conduct a search on that scale, and with something like this, you don't want to take your time with it. SWAT teams, etc., are needed in the event it really does turn into an active shooter type situation.

Q: What did the umbrella look like?

A: I saw it on TV, and it appeared to be one of these, or very similar:

It was the bigger one. If you want one of your own, you can get it here. The umbrella case also has a strap, so that it can be slung over the shoulder like a rifle would be, which may have made it look more gun-like.

Q: (From Dale J) I have heard reports from people inside the mall about the chaos and lack of information they had. Do they do tests?

A: Well, that's a good question. I can confirm from scanner reports that the situation was a bit chaotic, some of which, I imagine, is to be expected. For example, initially there was confusion about whether or not one employee from each store would remain inside to assist police. Also, while most employees were evacuated, some locked themselves in the offices of the stores. One employee was on TV reporting that they first heard of the incident from other shoppers.

As for whether or not they run drills at the mall, I have no idea. I'm sure they certainly don't run them with real, unsuspecting shoppers. If you've ever been in the mall when the fire alarm goes off, you know that most people just keep shopping. Trying to evacuate a busy mall must be a very difficult task. I would guess that the police department has run exercises at the mall (in fact, that morning, they were running active shooter drills at the high school), but I don't know if they involve employees or not, or to what degree. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know.

Q: (From Kitty) How old was the man with the rifle/umbrella? He must have been pretty scared when police were bearing down on him!

A: He's around 20, and while he looked a little intimidated on the TV, he did call the police himself, which is a very admirable move. I think most people would not have, and that fact that he did allowed them to bring a tense situation to a close. Without him making that phone call, police would have had to continue to search and run down leads and reports of suspect sightings.

Q: What do I do if there is a report of an active shooter in my workplace?

A: Click this link to view the Department of Homeland Securities guidelines.

I'll continue to answer questions as they come up. Please post them along with your comments, thoughts, complaints, etc, in the comments section below.

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