West County SWAT’s BearCat rolls up to the west entrance of Westminster Mall with team members armed and ready.
They station themselves around the front entrance, gathering as much intel as possible.
“Do you see anyone?” one of them asks.
What they do know: There’s an active shooter somewhere in the mall.
They enter the mall as a group, some walking backward, covering themselves on all sides from prospective fire. The team walks deeper into the building, as mall music plays in the background. Screams for help can be heard coming from somewhere in the mall.
“Got movement upstairs,” says a SWAT team member.
The team splits up to different areas of the mall. One team heads upstairs via escalator.
The smaller team heads strategically toward an area near the JCPenney. Eventually all of the teams head here.
Then, a group of people come out with their hands up. It’s a group of about 11 teens who are ushered by SWAT to a spot near the Hot Topic.
“Anybody injured?” one of the SWAT team members asks.
“He got shot,” one of the teens answers.
The medics on the team go to help the teens. Not long after, these SWAT team members are alerted via police radio that the shooter was apprehended.
The team high-fives the teens and all SWAT members head outside for a debrief. And then they all prepare to do the whole thing over again.
The West County SWAT training at Westminster Mall takes place annually to prepare team members, comprised of five area police agencies including Westminster PD, as well as the mall for a large-scale police event such as an active shooter situation. The scenario is as real as possible, however, SWAT makes sure each gun used is not armed with live ammo.
“Each scenario that we do is actually based on an actual real-life event that most other agencies have dealt with at some point,” said WPD Sgt. Don Webb, who was operations sergeant at the June 23 training. “It’s up to us as the operations part of the team to react to the suspect.”
Several smaller scenarios formed the larger active shooter scenario that the team played out throughout the Sunday evening after the mall closed. The mission was trifold, according to Sgt. Mike Henderson, of Seal Beach PD, who is operations sergeant for West County SWAT.
He said during the first scenario, the focus is on assisting the mall in evaluating their security procedures.
“We’ve been doing this training with the mall for several years,” said Henderson. “We have a good working relationship with their security department and their management.”
Scott Stone, security director at the mall for Allied Universal, which provides the mall’s security, said drills like this help members of the security department learn how to react in a crisis situation. He said they also assist SWAT in gaining access to areas of the mall as well as providing information.
Henderson said the first scenario involves a lot of collaboration with the mall’s security department.
“We set up kind of a script where we inject various pieces of information and changing conditions that the security personnel and police officers will respond to,” he said. “I can tell you that over the years, it’s evolved and they’ve definitely made some improvements and enhancements to their security response procedures.”
During the second scenario, the focus is on crisis negotiations.
“We’re working with our procedures and protocols,” Henderson said.
They are gathering information, setting up response protocols and establishing communication networks. They use technology including the SWAT police robot, drones and software to gather and organize information.
“When we do that, that’s a longer scenario … because we’re really giving our crisis negotiation team a very robust scenario,” said Henderson.
He said that ultimately the goal is always a negotiated surrender.
“That’s what we’re always looking for, negotiated resolution,” he said.
Toward the end of the training, the focus becomes tactical.
“It gives us an opportunity to be inside the mall, work inside an actual building within our jurisdiction,” Henderson said. “At the end of the day, we want to feel like if something happened in that mall that would require a SWAT response, we’ve trained there as much as we possibly can.”
The teens who made up the hostages in all the scenarios were made up of police explorers. The “suspects” were volunteers from the participating agencies.
“Those scenarios … they give the operators, the team members, that opportunity to put their training into play,” said Webb. “We’re just grateful that the mall allows us to use it.”