The police radio crackles and the words “shots fired at the mall” cut through the air. A white male in a fishing style cap and blue jeans is identified as the shooter. Four Wrentham police officers arrive on the scene at the Wrentham Premium Outlet Mall making their way from the parking lot to Colonial Court as shoppers are frantically running away from the shots. The police pause because they spot a man that fits the description, but he doesn’t appear to be a threat and shots continue to be heard off in the distance. Right under the clock, outside in the center of Colonial Court, the open space near the food pavilion is the active shooter. He holds an automatic weapon and he continues to shoot. The air fills with smoke and the four Wrentham police officers head towards the gunman, hiding behind poles that partially concealed their bodies.
Wrentham Sgt. Jeffrey Smith yells, “Bang, bang, bang” and the shooter places his gun down gently and lies on the ground, playing dead or hurt. The police approach and make sure the shooter is down.
This scene played out multiple times on a rainy, pre-hurricane, Sunday night at the mall as part of a training exercise for the Wrentham Police Department that all officers were required to attend. To give the training session realism, a huge cast of players was assembled giving the night the feel of a Hollywood production. The shooter's gun fired blanks that sounded like the real deal. There were three dozen extras, mostly citizens from the West Wrentham Citizens Watch and members of King Philip Drama Club. Also on hand was MetroLec SWAT (Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council Special Weapons & Response Team), and Wrentham Police and Fire departments. The training exercises were designed to provide as much realism as possible. “You have to train that way,” says Wrentham Police Chief James Anderson. “A situation like this could happen.”
According to MetroLec Sgt. Jason Brennan, in the past eight years there have been a dozen shootings in shopping malls throughout the country and that training at the Wrentham Premium Outlets made sense. Much of the active shooter training law enforcement receives is around schools but an outdoor mall provides a different setting with unique challeges. “We focus on schools but [shopping malls] offer a different environment,” he says. “Malls are open area venues.”
Brennan commended the Wrentham Police Department and the security at the Outlets, and in particular Wrentham Lt. Barry McGrath, for organizing the unique training exercise. The event was a marvel in logistics and was not tossed together overnight. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to bring this many people together,” says Brennan.
While the situations resembles a possible shooter scenario, it lacks the real danger law enforcement professionals face in these types of violent situations. But, it does provide some hint to the chaos and danger one might see. “Your adrenaline does get going,” says Smith. “This is as good as it gets.”
Anderson likes this simulation training because he hopes that when his officers are put in a real situation they will respond quickly and without hesitation. He likens it to building muscle memory.
Wrentham resident Mary Ann Farrar felt the exercise brought home how dangerous a situation like this might be if it ever happened. “It’s very frightening,” she said. “You think what if. I always respeced the police, but that respect has quadrupled.”
The experience was captured on video thanks to King Philip High School students Chad Narducci and Christina Allen, as well as their adviser Ryan Bennett. The three were allowed access to film up close right in the action. “This is quite an experience,” says Narducci. “The images are pretty amazing. I had no idea what I was getting into."
In addition to taking the shooter down, the police, SWAT, and members of Wrentham's Fire department worked on other aspects of an active shooter situation. There were rescue components to the training where two King Philip High School students were removed from the scene after simulating injuries from the shooter. The MetroLec SWAT rolled in on two armored vehicles and then went through the mall releasing shoppers that had fled into the stores for protection. At all times, hidden in the shadows were snipers positioned at different points on the mall's roof.
After a debriefing and a break for pizza and water, a hostage scenario was setup within one of the administrative offices at the mall. The shooter took several hostages and Wrentham Police worked on communicating with him and how to enter tight spaces like an office. The police would take time to critique their approach. The SWAT personnel also worked on moving into the space taking down the shooter.
As the evening ended, the members of the different units gathered together for a photo opportunity to commemorate the four hours of training.