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N.J. police test their campus response

By Michael J. Feeney
The Record

MONTCLAIR, N.J. If a gunman starts shooting at a local college campus, police say, their action will be swift and deadly.

But even with police preparing for the worst, campuses are still showing vulnerabilities as far as barriers to the start of such calamities.

For the first time, state, county and local law enforcement agencies from Passaic and Essex counties came together Friday for an all-day training session at Montclair State University, where an "active shooter" scenario was presented.

An active shooter is defined as an armed person who has used deadly force on people and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to more victims.

About 60 officers from 17 law enforcement agencies, including departments in Clifton, Little Falls, Totowa, West Paterson and William Paterson University, participated in the program looking to stop the shooters in three situations inside Bohn Hall, a 16-story residence tower.

Totowa Patrolman George DiPasquale described it as a "life-like situation as if there was an actual shooting going on at campus."

Officers were told by trainers, "Last we heard there were shots fired in the basement or 7th floor living area. There's a gunman in there, students hurt," said DiPasquale. "Our job was to go in there fast as possible and find the gunman."
Officers in protective gear and moving in a diamond formation, crouched, and extended their simulated guns as they entered the building.

"You're trying to determine who's a good guy and who's a bad guy," said DiPasquale, whose clothes were stained with marks from pellets, filled with detergent. Other officers and state troopers played the role of students and gunmen.

"They acted the way kids would be acting," said West Paterson Detective Thomas Bolen. "They were screaming and running around, some people were injured and some were shot."

Despite their aggressive posture, DiPasquale said the officers' sole intent was not to kill.

"If somebody was firing at you or if somebody had a weapon and didn't comply, your job was to take out the threat," he said, noting officers gave the shooter a chance to end the standoff peacefully. "It's not just a shoot 'em up."

Such training has gained urgency since April's massacre at Virginia Tech where a deranged student killed 32 students and faculty in a dorm and classroom building. Matthew La Porte, 20, of Dumont, was among those killed.

Although a police-response plan is in place, MSU Police Chief Paul Cell said the campus is open. He described minimal security barriers, including cameras throughout the campus.

The school does have a system to send alerts and check students' whereabouts via cellphones issued through the university. Incoming freshmen are required to pay for the GPS-enabled phones, at $186 per semester.

At Rutgers, residence halls are equipped with electronic locking systems that require swipe-card access or are staffed by security staff who check IDs of anyone entering. The university also has hundreds of security cameras in and around residence halls, parking lots and academic buildings on all campuses.

And it encourages the school community to register mobile phone numbers with the school for emergency messaging.

Copyright 2007 North Jersey Media Group

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