Tom Lawrence, Vice President of St. John’s Department of Public Safety, had to act quickly on Wednesday when reports came in regarding a student on campus wearing a mask and carrying a rifle.
The TORCH had the opportunity to sit down with Lawrence the day after the incident to discuss how Public Safety reacted to the near-crisis, what he felt needed to be improved upon, and how big a role the emergency notification service played.
TORCH: How did you first hear about the incident, and what was your immediate reaction to hearing there was a gunman on campus?
Tom Lawrence: The first instance that we heard was at 2:21 p.m. We got a call that a man had entered campus. A student saw someone on campus with a bag, possibly a stick in the bag. The officers at that point were dispatched and started to roll towards Taffner Fieldhouse, where the person had been seen. There was another call at 2:24 p.m. about a male with a mask, possibly with a gun, heading from Taffner towards the law school. This elicited an even further response, with myself running out and joining one of the cars as we headed towards Marillac Hall, since there was information that he was around there. At 2:24 p.m., when we heard he had a gun, we called 911. We went into Marillac, and while searching, a couple students told us that they just saw the guy at St. John’s Hall within two minutes.
I started to walk with another officer towards St. John’s Hall, and as we were by the terrace, the red-brick area by the umbrellas, someone said, “There he is up top.”
My officers that were still in the building walked into the breezeway while the suspect was coming out. They met and struggled for the gun. The cadet was behind him, and saw the officer struggling with the gun. He [the cadet] pushed the student with the gun to the wall. By the time I got there, the suspect was pushed up against the wall and the gun was away from him. I went downstairs then to put out the text message.
We still hadn’t gotten a lot of information, so we thought, “Maybe there’s another person at St. John’s Hall,” since it would have been hard for him to get to where he was in such a short amount of time. So, we wanted to get everyone safe.
TORCH: What did you think of Public Safety’s job on the whole in terms of keeping people out of harm’s way?
T.L.: I couldn’t have been prouder of the work they did. Many of them have law enforcement backgrounds, probably more experience in our public safety unit than most small-town police departments. I think they did a great job.
TORCH: How important do you think the text messaging was and how big a role do you think it played in the response?
T.L: I think it played a big role. The people I know that got it thought it was reassuring. It gave people some information as opposed to them just staying in the building and not knowing what’s going on. I think we put three messages out total, and they were followed up right after by e-mails from communications. From my understanding, there was a constant flow of e-mails. So in terms of getting information to people, I think it let people feel more at ease.
This was the case at Carnesecca Arena. Police swept it, and then we moved people from Marillac into the arena. Father Carroll was able to give some briefing to them on what was happening. It eased stress for a lot of people, and that’s also what the text messages did.
TORCH: Do you think you should have sent out more text messages during the hours of lockdown, since there were so many rumors that were floating around?
T.L.: That’s not really the purpose of the text messages. It was used just for our initial emergency blast. We sent out another one saying police were coming in, and they were in uniform and had weapons, so people would be comfortable with that. But that’s not really what the messages are meant for. In fact, we sent more than I expected.
We’re going to critique the system. We’re going to have a department critique on Monday or Tuesday, followed by an operations team critique us. We’ll hear from people from every department – student life, athletics, Sodexho, everybody – so we can see what information they did not get, and maybe it will come out that we need more text messaging. We’ll go through that all next week.
TORCH: What are some things you think public safety can improve upon in case of a future incident?
T.L.: I think there’s a little room for improvement. The text messaging has options to send out group messaging [text messages to just one group of people]. For example, we had to call EEV- emergency evacuation volunteers. They’re mostly staff that work during fire drills and assist in evacuation. They leave the building and then assist us in moving people away from exits. We called all those people maybe not as timely as we could have. If we could have sent out a group text message just to them, we could have notified them even more quickly, so that’s one thing we could work on.
TORCH: Some people in the dorms were wondering why they hadn’t been evacuated. Was there no concern for the dorms?
T.L.: We knew we had the one guy, and we were pretty sure he was the only guy. He matched the same descriptions we had from all those people that talked to us. Our focus was on him – that’s where he was, and those were the buildings we were concerned with. We knew he was not over by the dorms.
TORCH: How many more students have signed up for the Emergency Contact System?
T.L.: I don’t have exact numbers, but I heard it has tripled since yesterday. I got a box of flyers for it that we’ll be giving out to students, and there were kiosks out there today trying to get people signed up.
I got a lot of calls from other universities about what system we use. We got a lot of good luck, but a lot of practicing and putting hard work into it was also part of it. We’re very fortunate, as Father Harrington said yesterday.
TORCH: Do you have any plan of beefing up security for a while in case of any copycat instances?
T.L.: As you may or may not know, we beefed up security last night. We had our 4 p.m. -12 a.m. officers stay later. As you know, we had the NYPD here today in golf shirts, and they were here just walking around giving their presence. We had some extra perimeter patrol.
We don’t want to do too much, since we want to get back to a little bit of normalcy. There’s always the possibility of a copycat, and we’re prepared for that, and we’re getting extra attention right now from the local precinct and the Queens Borough – the chief was here before. We just want to get back to normalcy as soon as possible.