NJ set to expand emergency planning for mass shootings

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | OCTOBER 5, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 2, 2018: People pay their respects outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed in a shooting on Oct 27, 2018 while worshipping.

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New Jersey is on the verge of requiring many movie theaters, houses of worship and other public places to create plans for dealing with a potential active shooter and then share them to better prepare police.

Lawmakers this week sent Gov. Phil Murphy a bill mandating certain public and private places create those plans. Monday’s vote in the Assembly was unanimous, but seven Republicans abstained. A Senate vote four months ago was also unanimous.

“We’re all too intimately aware of what’s been going on in this country and around the world in terms of acts against schools, against population centers, and even against religious institutions,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “This is a preventative bill. We believe it is a fundamentally necessary bill so that anything that would occur can, in fact, be taken care of easily and quickly.”

If Murphy signs it, hundreds of gathering places around the state would join schools in having to take at least some steps to prepare for an attack by a gunman or a terrorist assault.

New Jersey, spurred by the mass shootings in the nation’s schools, has required schools to create security plans. A report by security.org found that 304 fatal school shootings have occurred since two students killed 13 and themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, leading to 392 deaths and 1,119 injuries through August.

Schools already do emergency planning

The provisions for those mandated security plans have changed as technology has changed and as more students have been killed. On Aug. 1, Murphy signed into law a requirement for all public schools to create a threat assessment team to identify students who might engage in violence and manage any potential risk. And on Aug. 30, Murphy announced the state plans to spend $6.5 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to create digitized school building blueprints for about half the schools in the state that now only have paper ones on file with emergency responders; the purpose is to make it easier for law enforcement to respond to an active shooter or other emergency. Blueprints or maps have been required since 2019 and pending legislation would require that all these be made accessible on electronic platforms used by police.

Mass shootings have occurred at entertainment venues; the nation’s deadliest incident saw a gunman kill 60 people attending an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas in 2017. People inside houses of worship have also been killed; the antisemitic attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 left 11 dead. And they can happen elsewhere, such as the murder of 10 Black people by a white gunman inside a grocery store in Buffalo five months ago.

Since 2010, New Jersey law has required large sports and entertainment facilities to file an emergency operations plan annually with municipal emergency management coordinators. The legislation on Murphy’s desk would broaden that requirement to include movie theaters that can seat more than 1,000 people and places of worship that can seat 500 or more and mandate that the plans be submitted to law enforcement officials. They would have to include a copy of each building’s plan or layout, identifying access routes and exits. Police would be required to use the plans to prepare and train for a mass casualty or active shooter incident at these locations.

“If, God forbid anything should happen, our local police departments need to have immediate access to those blueprints, so as to catch the perpetrators of any kind of crime,” Schaer said.

‘A sad commentary’

The legislation sailed through committees and full house votes in the Senate and Assembly with almost no comment. During a Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing in May, Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) said, “It’s a sad commentary that we even have to do this bill.”

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities opposes the bill on technical grounds. Michael Cerra, the league’s executive director, said the group has concerns about potential confusion when a location is within multiple jurisdictions and when venues have private security.

At least some religious groups already have been working on emergency planning.

Lisa Karasic, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey based in South Brunswick, said the organization “regularly facilitates and provides access to a broad range of security planning, training, and resource development such as this for houses of worship and other nonprofit organizations that serve the Jewish community,” as well as other faith communities.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-05 02:32:40 -0700