Harford police response plans

The Harford County SheriffÕs Office Special Response Team vehicle would likely be used at a public shooting or similar incident, including to back up Bel Air Police Department Officers during an incident at Harford Mall or another shopping area in the town. (Harford County Sheriff's Office / The Aegis / January 28, 2014)

If a shooter is inside Harford Mall, or in and around any other public gathering place in Bel Air, the heads of two police agencies whose offices sit two blocks from each other say they would know how to respond quickly and cooperatively.

Unlike Howard County, where three people were shot inside the Mall in Columbia on Saturday, Harford County does not have a single police agency. Harford Mall is inside the Bel Air town limits and the first response to a shooter there would be the responsibility of the Bel Air Police Department.

But the Harford County Sheriff's Office, which polices most of the county, would also be available to assist, as would other law enforcement agencies in the area, according to Bel Air Chief Leo Matrangola and Sheriff Jesse Bane. Both say their respective agencies understand their responsibilities in high stress, life-threatening situations in public places.

Following the shootings at the Mall in Columbia Saturday morning, Matrangola said he called the management of Harford Mall to inform them he would be sending officers to patrol the shopping area to show "high visibility" and to make sure shoppers felt at ease.

Sign up to receive our free daily email newsletter: Bel Air Today

Just two months earlier, Bel Air Police Department personnel attended a tabletop exercise hosted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at Harford Community College to play out the scenario of an active shooter at Harford Mall, the chief said.

While Matrangola said he could not disclose the type of firearms available to the Bel Air Police in such an emergency situation, he said the BAPD is "well prepared with the necessary equipment" to handle a threat.

He also said Bel Air Police have plans in place to work alongside law enforcement partners and emergency responders for "unusual" events, like the Columbia shootings.

Taking the lead

If a shooting incident occurred at Harford Mall – or any other public shopping area within the town —Matrangola said Bel Air Police would take the lead and in responding and controlling and investigating the situation from beginning to end.

At its discretion, he said the department, could call for assistance from the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police or another municipal police force.

Matrangola noted that Harford Mall also has security guards inside the mall, who deal with regular crime activity such as "smash and grabs." And in a small town like Bel Air, he said, there is often an off-duty officer in the mall.

Just three miles from end to end, Bel Air's small size makes it easier for the police department to respond to emergencies inside the jurisdiction, Matrangola said. He added all of the police departments in Harford County are linked through access to the same radio frequencies.

"We know we a call is coming in so we can respond quickly," he said. "We can respond to almost any call [in Bel Air] in two minutes."

In case of an emergency, Matrangola said it would be the duty of first responders to "preserve the life."

"One or two officers would be headed toward the shooting when everyone else is running away from the sounds," he explained. "We are running to neutralize the situation."

The chief said a second wave of responders would be issued commands by a supervisor and personnel or on-site security personnel who know the building well, such as the mall security guards. He said one team would secure the area, a second would canvas for any secondary threat and a third would round up witnesses.

He said the Bel Air Police Department has a working relationship with mall management and individual store managers to work together in case of a threat. He said the department demonstrated its capability to act fast when responding to the Liberty Bank robbery inside Harford Mall last September.

Two-thirds trained

According to Matrangola, 22 of the 31 town police officers have active shooter training and rehearse at the range at least twice a year. In addition, five officers went through an intensive two-week training course to join the multi-jurisidictional Harford County SWAT unit.

"There are three of my officers working right now who could suit up if we needed to use that unit," Matrangola said Monday night.