CHAMPAIGN — A van chock full of explosives outside a department store, one man shot, terrified customers, two bad guys caught, and lots of police officers in dramatic outfits and big vehicles.
All that and more was part of a police training exercise that played out — mostly smoothly — at Market Place Mall late Tuesday and early Wednesday as most of the community slept.
The exercise began under beautiful evening conditions at 10 p.m. Tuesday but ended at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, a few hours shy of what organizers had planned, when thunderstorms hit, briefly flooding area streets and bringing tree limbs down.
Motorists who passed the mall during the event saw electronic message boards that said: “Police training in progress. Avoid area.”
“We had a good initial response. They located the downed security guard quickly,” said Champaign police Lt. Jim Clark, one of the organizers of the joint training exercise that brought together three different specialty teams with about 65 officers from seven area police departments.
Joining them were reporters and photographers from The News-Gazette, WDWS-WHMS Radio, and WICD and WCIA television stations.
Also present were about 30 volunteers who played the roles of mall shoppers and employees. They came from Parkland College’s criminal justice program, the Champaign police department’s Explorer program and a few police department employees, the UI police department’s student patrol, the Illinois National Guard Provost Marshal’s Office, and mall security employees, according to Clark.
“I was in Macy’s shopping and the next thing you know I heard, ‘Get on the ground.’ I turned around and the SWAT team was there,” said role player Robert King of Rantoul.
Fellow role player Nic King of Champaign was also in Macy’s.
“I heard something that sounded like gunshots but I wasn’t sure so I just kept on shopping,” he said, noting that what he heard sounded far away. “I saw a door open from the outside so I hid. It was SWAT. They told me to get down. They escorted me out. I didn’t see anyone.”
“Fight or flight kicked in,” added Shane Allen of Tuscola, who was with Robert King.
“I was shopping in the men’s suits area and we heard somebody yell aggressively, ‘Get on the ground.’ We couldn’t see who. We ran to a back corner and came to a dead end. Then Champaign SWAT stuck rifles in our face not knowing who we were.”
So how did that make him feel?
“Safe,” said Allen. “It’s nice to know SWAT has our back.”
Market Place is a gun-free zone where concealed carry by citizens is not allowed, he noted.
It was at 10:05 p.m. Tuesday that the police special teams were notified that a security guard had been shot at Sears. (The store has been out of business since January so was empty and available for training.) The teams had no other knowledge of the script for the evening’s events.
By 10:15 p.m., Champaign’s SWAT team was congregating in a parking lot behind the Barnes & Noble book store just south of the mall. There, a team of fellow officers, including Police Chief Anthony Cobb, serving as safety inspectors, checked them to make sure that their guns were not loaded.
Minutes later, members of the Metropolitan Emergency Tactical Response Operations (METRO) unit were similarly screened. That team has members from the Urbana, University of Illinois, Parkland, Rantoul and Mahomet police departments and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.
At 10:40 p.m., the joint Champaign and University of Illinois Explosive Ordnance Disposal team trailer arrived in the parking lot on the east side of Market Place,
Also arriving was a van with trained police hostage negotiators and the county’s mobile command center, filled with supervisors from the various departments.
Reporters were kept a safe distance away with Champaign police spokeswoman Rene Dunn giving them periodic updates with only snippets of information.
One hour after the exercise had begun she told reporters that police had received a call at 10:05 p.m. that a Sears security officer had been shot but was okay and was being interviewed by police.
“There is a report that there may be an explosive device in a suspicious vehicle in the parking lot,” she said. “Our primary concern is about safety. We definitely caution people not to come near the mall.”
“It’s my understanding it happened in Sears,” she said of the shooting as reporters peppered her with questions. (The script for the exercise said the guard was shot outside Sears and other news reporters who arrived later reported seeing the guard on the ground outside the former catalog pickup area.)
“I don’t know about what streets are closed. We do have officers over there trying to assess the situation,” she said, conveying the frustration of not having much information early in exercise to be able to share with reporters clamoring to get the word out.
At 11:50 p.m., Dunn said police had taken a man into custody outside Sears and officers were still checking out the suspicious vehicle. Ten minutes earlier, the bomb squad’s remote-controlled robot had rolled off the trailer toward the Sears store. During that same briefing, she said the mall evacuation was still going on and she wasn’t sure if there was more than one shooter or if the one in custody had been injured.
At 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, the information had expanded to two men in police custody but little else about them.
Shortly after 1 a.m., reporters and photographers left the exercise and because of the approaching storm, Clark said the organizers changed up the scenario in order to end the exercise quicker for the police as well.
“We had shots fired inside Sears. Oh yes, they got him,” he said of the SWAT members.
A debriefing was scheduled for 3:30 a.m. “to talk about what went right and what went wrong and what we can do better next time,” Clark said. “It’s all about learning.”