Wednesday, November 13, 2019

In light of the massacre in Pittsburgh, as well as numerous other tragic events and threats in recent months, a security meeting was held in Union County on November 7 to address security concerns and preparedness training for schools and synagogues. This meeting was arranged jointly by Jani Jonas, COO of the Union YM-YWHA, and Michael Monahan, officer and acting prosecutor of Union County.

Detective Izzy Chaudhry, representing the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, spoke at length about the current paradigm shift in the nature of terrorism and the type of terrorists observed in recent incidents, citing the rise in white supremacy activity with the goal of disenfranchising target groups. He also emphasized the importance of being cognizant of one’s surroundings in all settings. He said that “it’s important to look for behavior, not skin color,” as many have done in the past, and noted that the rise in public and mass violence is not always “terrorist” activity, but often domestic violence or mental illness related.

Robert Wilson, chief security officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, urged both leaders and citizens to maintain a good relationship with local police and law enforcement. The old but extraordinarily effective rule still works: “If you see something, say something.” SAR, or suspicious activity reporting, remains a highly effective and accurate tool for prevention—which is the primary and unanimous goal.

Mike Boyle, the risk-mitigation planner in the Counter Terrorism Unit with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, conducts on-site risk assessments for institutions in the county. A risk assessment involves a lengthy and detailed visit by risk experts to a facility or campus. The assessment covers virtually every inch of the interior and exterior of the building and grounds, including function and use by its occupants, identifying possible breaches. For example, Boyle pointed out that there is an entry risk when a smoker leaves a building and props the door open.

The assessment is 60 to 90 pages in length, pointing out every risk noted in the inspection and making recommendations to plug any holes. The process also includes an assessment of the facility plans, and notes FEMA training sessions and how to create and implement emergency planning. Union County risk assessments are free of charge and Boyle urged every school and religious organization to engage this service.

Training for facility safety takes about two to three hours and focuses primarily on the threat of an active shooter or an explosive device. After the training, the organization or school must regularly run drills to educate, train and create appropriate responses to prepare for the possibility of a real-life incident. Based on the fire drills that schools have been successfully running since the middle of the last century, we know preparedness works. While not perfect, it is far better than the potential chaos that can occur when frightened people are not trained. The average person—especially if untrained—tends to panic and thereby make poor decisions.

Attendees learned that there is also an interfaith advisory council that meets four times a year. Any incident from within the county triggers a council call, and state police are included as well.

There has been a rise in overall shooter incidents during the past 20 years, but since 2014 there have been nine incidents in houses of worship.

The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado ignited numerous and terrible repeat occurrences, which created a necessary layer of alert and preparedness in schools. But not enough, these speakers believe. Monahan urged everyone to “remain vigilant, and remain intolerant of violence.”

John Esmerado, supervisor in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, urged the use of security surveillance systems that do not auto-erase every 24 hours. He recommended an active camera system, noting that facial recognition can and does successfully lead to preventive measures. All agreed that law enforcement can only respond to the incidents people report. So, again, “If you see something, say something.”

Finally, there are grants available to qualifying institutions, some for equipment and some for personnel expenses for improved security. For information, contact the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness at www.njohsp.gov/njsars. To set up a security assessment, contact the Union County Prosecutor’s Office at 908-810-6572.

By Ellie Wolf