Harford police leaders say they're prepared for public shooting incidents

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.

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.

According to Matrangola, the State Highway Administration says more than 40,000 people travel within the Bel Air jurisdiction per day.

During Christmas, the police department beefed up visibility around Harford Mall to deter crime. It is also custom for the department to increases security at the mall and other places when there are events that will bring in bigger crowds, Matrangola said.

The chief said his officers regularly make rounds to the mall, schools and other facilities were large numbers of people congregate to try to minimize security threats. 

"You can't predict where things will happen," Matrangola said. "But, if you handle the regular crime events properly, you know how to respond to every situation."

'...everyday occurrence'

The Sheriff's Office has spent more than a decade training personnel to respond to so-called "active shooter" incidents, and Saturday's deadly Howard County mall shooting could provide yet another opportunity for local law enforcement leaders to adjust their training and response plans, Bane said.

Bane noted Monday afternoon that shootings in public places such as malls, movie theatres and schools are "getting to be close to an everyday occurrence."

"If we had the resources we would have people who do nothing but prepare and exercise and expand our operations in the county," he said during an interview in his Bel Air office.

Like the Bel Air Police Department, the Sheriff's Office participated in the FBI tabletop exercise at HCC in November to test strategies for responding to an active shooter incident at Harford Mall.

Cristie Kahler, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said a slew of local and state agencies took part, including the two other municipal police departments in the county, Maryland State Police, fire and EMS companies, Harford County Public Schools, county emergency operations officials and representatives of Harford Mall and malls across the region.

Kahler explained that, as opposed to a "full-scale drill" in which participants act out an emergency in a physical space, a "tabletop exercise" involves getting representatives of as many agencies as possible around a table and then explaining what their agencies would do at each step of an unfolding scenario.

"They literally walk through the entire timeline of the event," she said.

Kahler said that through the tabletop exercise, which does not take as many resources as a drill, participants learn "what you're doing really well and where you need to focus a little bit more energy."

The sheriff said the exercise is designed to test response times, setup and coordination and communication among the agencies.

Bane said there were no major changes made to response plans following the exercise, "but there were a few chinks in the armor that have already been addressed or are being addressed." He declined to be specific.

He noted law enforcement officials have held similar exercises involving other locations such as Upper Chesapeake Medical Center – also inside the Bel Air town limits, public schools and county government buildings.

Working closely

Bane said while the Bel Air Police Department would be the lead agency if an incident would take place at Harford Mall and municipal police forces in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace would do likewise in their cities, the Sheriff's Office would be the lead agency in shooting or other life threatening situation outside the municipalities and would provide support during a municipal incident.

"I know they would call us because they call us quite often," Bane said of Bel Air Police. "We work very closely with the towns on these types of things."

The Sheriff's Office also has jurisdiction over incidents that take place at the Harford County Courthouse and in county government buildings in Bel Air, while the town police would handle any incident at the Mary E. W. Risteau Multi-Service Center, home of the District Court and various state offices.

Dfc. Brad Crossley, one of three active shooter instructors with the Sheriff's Office, said deputies are trained to deal with active shooter situations when they go through the academy and then every three years as they undergo medical recertification.

He said the deputies who are going through recertification have two full days of training, including one day with weapons such as handguns, shotguns and rifles and a second day of working through various shooting scenarios.

Crossley and Bane noted the uniformed deputies and police officers on the road in the immediate area would be the first to respond in an active shooter incident, followed by tactical teams.

"It's all hands on deck," Bane remarked. "It doesn't matter what uniform."

Three-pronged approach

Crossley said the Sheriff's Office has been involved in active shooter training for law enforcement officers since 2001, and began holding training sessions for civilians about two years ago.

He said civilians are taught a "three-pronged approach" to dealing with an active shooter situation - run, hide, fight.

Crossley said the first prong is to run.

"If it's safe to do so, we want you to run and get out of the building," he said.

The second prong involves hiding - civilians should get to a safe place in the structure and do everything possible to conceal themselves and block any entrances.

Anyone who applies the third prong, fighting, should "do whatever you need to do" to fight off an attacker, Crossley said.

"This is the last-ditch effort to save your life, at that point, so you need to use whatever you have available to you," he added.

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