Rapid Response: Early lessons from the JC Kosher Supermarket attack

Just as with the Midland and Odessa shootings earlier this year, the Jersey City shooting hints at a vexing problem for law enforcement ‒ countering mobile killers


What happened: Around noon on December 10, 2019, Jersey City (NJ) Police detective Joseph Seals was killed near Bay View Cemetery while investigating a stolen vehicle. The two suspects in the killing then fled in the hot rental van, and drove to the nearby JC Kosher Supermarket, arriving around 12:21 pm. Once there, the driver and passenger exited the van with rifles. The driver fired into the store from the street and entered the market, followed by the passenger. Once inside, the pair of suspects shot and killed three individuals (the store owner, an employee and a customer) and wounded another.

Jersey City police officers responded to the scene, and a gun battle erupted between them and the suspects, who were still inside the store. Sporadic gunfire continued for over an hour, including an intense exchange that occurred around 2 pm, and two police officers were wounded by the suspects.

At 3:25 pm, tactical officers drove an armored vehicle into the storefront, entered the market, and reportedly engaged the killers, putting them down. As they cleared the store, they found the three dead victims. Officials declared the incident “all clear” around 3:47 pm.

Police officers work nearby the scene of the JC Kosher Supermarket attack, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in Jersey City, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Police officers work nearby the scene of the JC Kosher Supermarket attack, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019, in Jersey City, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As always, it’s difficult to debrief a tactical incident so soon, when many of the facts and details are still unknown. However, an early analysis of the available information provides the following items for law enforcement and the public to consider:

No routine stops

The best information indicates that Detective Seals was investigating the U-Haul rental van located near the Bay View Cemetery because it had been reported stolen and was linked to a homicide case from the past weekend. Details about the contact are not available yet, but it has been reported that Detective Seals was shot in the upper arm and the back of the head.

This incident serves as a reminder that danger lurks around every corner for police officers, and you’re never sure who you’re dealing with and what they’re capable of when you first approach a scene. What seems like a “routine” contact can turn into a deadly confrontation very quickly, so officers need to use good tactics and remain situationally aware at all times, even when handling a call that appears simple and straightforward. As with the August 31, 2019, traffic stop that preceded the mobile, active shooting in Midland and Odessa, there’s no indication that Detective Seals did anything wrong, or made any tactical errors during the contact, but it’s obvious that things took an unanticipated and dangerous turn. If nothing else, officers need to remember that there are no exceptions to the rule that there are no routine stops.

Soft targets

Officials believe the killers were motivated by anti-Semitic bigotry and a hatred for law enforcement. It’s clear from video footage that the suspects deliberately targeted the market, with both driver and passenger immediately assaulting the store, as soon as they got out of their vehicle. In fact, their focus on the market was so intense that neither suspect took the opportunity to shoot at the large number of citizens in the immediate vicinity, as they approached the door.

It’s important to note that the JC Kosher Supermarket was a soft target, and the suspects had little to fear in attacking it. The significant and severe restrictions on private firearms ownership, and the lawful carriage of concealed weapons ‒ even by retired or off-duty police ‒ in New Jersey, ensured that they were unlikely to encounter armed resistance.  

This is not just a gun issue. Target hardening goes beyond arming people and also extends to things such as lighting, defensive architecture, access control, security cameras, and other safety protocols, but none of these passive measures are sufficient by themselves ‒ they have to be reinforced by a credible lethal force option to deter attacks from the likes of the JC Kosher Supermarket suspects.

We’ve previously seen that active shooters, terrorists and other killers bypass hard targets to strike more vulnerable ones. The shooters in the Pulse nightclub, Aurora movie theater and Santa Barbara attacks, specifically rejected targets where they were likely to encounter armed resistance or a significant security presence. In fact, the Pulse nightclub was a secondary target, selected by the killer after he aborted his plan to attack a more heavily secured Disney property, earlier that same evening.

Hard targets deter attacks, and soft targets invite them. Civic leaders, schools, religious institutions, government buildings, businesses and public venues must remember this when they’re evaluating legislation, security plans and preparations.

Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threats

Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have confirmed that a pipe bomb was found in the attacker’s stolen vehicle. It’s unknown why the attackers didn’t attempt to use the weapon, but it’s fortunate they didn’t, as the device could have injured even more innocents.

We’re seeing an increased presence of explosive and incendiary devices in attacks like these. From Columbine to Boston, and San Bernardino to Christchurch, active killers are including these weapons in their plans to kill innocents, and the odds that police will encounter them are increasing. Even when actual devices aren’t being used, clever attackers ‒ like those in the 2017 London Bridge and Borough Market attack ‒ are using fake ones to complicate the police response, or claiming them, as the Pulse Nightclub shooter did.

As such, the JC Kosher Supermarket attack emphasizes the importance of ensuring that patrol officers receive enhanced training on IED recognition and awareness. It also highlights the importance of getting the bomb squad and tactical communities to work more closely with each other.

Mobile killers

The JC Kosher Supermarket attack also hints at another vexing problem for law enforcement ‒ countering highly mobile killers. The suspects killed Detective Seals at one location, then quickly sped to their next target and launched their attack just minutes later.

Police in Jersey City received the 911 call notifying them about Detective Seals’ murder approximately 5 minutes before patrol officers responded to the JC Kosher Supermarket and engaged in a shootout with the suspects. It’s safe to say that a large contingent of police officers was already responding to the Bay View Cemetery when the calls for assistance came from the market, forcing many of them to redirect to that location.

It can be extremely difficult to shift resources from one priority to the next in rapidly changing circumstances. When killers go mobile, it adds a level of confusion and complexity that can stretch resources thin and decrease efficiency. It can take a while to recover and pinpoint the attacker’s location, as we’ve seen in events like the Inland Regional Center terror attack in San Bernardino, the mosque shooting in Christchurch, the shootings in Midland-Odessa, and the hijack of a UPS truck in Miami, last week.

This is an area that’s ripe for attention from trainers and tacticians in the police community. Whether the killers are simple criminals, or teams of terrorists executing a complex, coordinated attack, our police need to be ready to counter the threat of mobile killers like those in this Jersey City incident.

Armored vehicles

While some of the noise about police “militarization” has subsided in recent years, there are still many critics out there who oppose the use of equipment like the armored vehicle used by police to resolve the attack on the JC Kosher Supermarket.

This incident, like many before, highlights the critical importance of having armored vehicles available to police to protect the lives of officers and citizens alike. Video footage from Jersey City shows the police using armored vehicles to rescue and evacuate citizens who were trapped in the area. Additionally, officers were able to effectively use an armored vehicle to breach the market, end the threat, and clear the scene. Without these valuable assets, the public and the officers would have been at greater risk.

Police officials and public information officers should be ready to cite cases like this one when their armored vehicle programs come under political attack. The public needs to understand that armored vehicles are used to enhance their safety, not to threaten it, and dramatic footage like that from the JC Kosher Supermarket powerfully conveys the message.

Conclusion

We’ll learn more about this incident in Jersey City in the days to come, and with that knowledge will come even more useful lessons for both the police and the public.

In the meantime, we here at PoliceOne extend our deepest sympathies to the family, friends and coworkers of Detective Joseph Seals, and the three innocent victims of the attack on the market. We also wish the wounded officers a speedy and complete recovery and salute the professionalism and courage of all the officers who responded to this incident and risked their personal safety to protect the public they serve.

God bless you all and be safe out there.

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