In training exercise, Middle police fire blanks, seek realism

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Middle Township police enter the library during an “active shooter” training exercise at the county library on Wednesday, April 30. The exercise was held at the library over four Wednesdays in April. Middle Township police enter the library during an “active shooter” training exercise at the county library on Wednesday, April 30. The exercise was held at the library over four Wednesdays in April. CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Four shots rang out, a staccato pop-pop-pop-pop that echoed through the main branch of the county library on Mechanic Street on Wednesday, April 30, the last day of a police training exercise.

Three more shots followed; then screams and chaos.

Outside, a group of officers from the Middle Township Police Department were shocked. Earlier, they’d been told that the exercise was little more than a practice of tactics – clearing a building and looking for suspicious items.

“They think it’s just a walkthrough,” said Cpl. Marcus Phillips before the exercise began. “They think they’re learning movements. The officers have no idea what’s about to happen.”

Phillips, the department’s head training officer, is a big man, over six feet tall and muscular. For the exercise, he wore camouflage clothing, and carried a small pistol loaded with blanks. Phillips played the role of an “active shooter,” and he, along with Patrolman James D’Alonzo designed the exercise for the department.

Phillips said it was the first time the department had practiced a scenario like the one that ran over four Wednesdays in April. He said that he and D’Alonzo designed it to be as realistic as possible.

“Reality is people screaming, running, or wandering around in shock,” Phillips said.

An officer crouches over a volunteer victim playing dead during the police training exercise. An officer crouches over a volunteer victim playing dead during the police training exercise. The screams and chaos were real. Volunteer victims for the exercise begged for help and screamed out conflicting descriptions of Phillips, who hid on the upper floor of the library, firing more blanks.

Some of the people were covered in fake blood. A few played dead, scattered on the floor.

“We learned something from the Columbine incident,” Phillips said. “At Columbine, the first responders waited for the SWAT team.”

In 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado murdered 13 people and injured another 24, while first responders to the scene set up a perimeter, Phillips said, and waited for the SWAT team.

It can take 30 minutes for SWAT to organize, gear-up and respond to an emergency call, he said.

“In reality,” Phillips said, “an active shooter situation is normally over in 5 minutes.”

That was an important lesson for the police department.

“SWAT teams practice a lot of scenarios,” Phillips said. “But this exercise was just for the Middle Township Police Department. We’re training our first responders how to react to an active shooter.”

So as Phillips fired his pistol and charged upstairs, police entered the building, weapons drawn and alert. They noted the victims, but moved to find Phillips and stop him before he could “kill” anyone else.

“The police are the first people here,” Phillips said, “and they’re here to stop the shooter.”

In the exercise, the team of police officers spread out through the library, cautiously checking corners and other hiding places.

Volunteer victims tried to distract the officers by screaming for help. Two volunteers cornered an officer in a stairwell and gave different descriptions of Phillips.

The scenario played out in less than 10 minutes, with Phillips neutralized on the second floor.

“James and I spent about a month designing the exercise,” Phillips said. “It was his idea to use the library and fire a gun with blanks.”

The state mandates that the police train twice a year, and the exercise in April was part of that training. The library was closed for the training, which ended by 11 a.m.

“The library was very generous to provide the time and building for this exercise,” Phillips said. “And the volunteers who played victims gave us better training.”

Volunteers for the April 30 exercise included Claire Fagain-Craig, Mike Trout, LisaMarie Alderter, Beth Gaworski, Adrienne Kelly, Daniel Smith, Dorma Gallop, Mary Ecklund, Amanda Heidema, Angela Plagge and Deb Poillon, library director.

Volunteers for the police exercise gave the police better training, said Corporal Marcus Phillips. Shown above are some of the volunteers at the police exercise, along with a cutout of David Tennant, a British actor: Mike Trout, LisaMarie Alderter, Beth Gaworski, Adrienne Kelly, Daniel Smith, Dorma Gallop, Mary Ecklund, Amanda Heidema. Not pictured are Claire Fagain-Craig, Angela Plagge and Deb Poillon. Volunteers for the police exercise gave the police better training, said Corporal Marcus Phillips. Shown above are some of the volunteers at the police exercise, along with a cutout of David Tennant, a British actor: Mike Trout, LisaMarie Alderter, Beth Gaworski, Adrienne Kelly, Daniel Smith, Dorma Gallop, Mary Ecklund, Amanda Heidema. Not pictured are Claire Fagain-Craig, Angela Plagge and Deb Poillon.


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