HOBART | Westfield Southlake mall turned into a police training arena Sunday evening as Hobart police and mall security acted out hostage and shooting scenarios with air pellet guns.
In teams of four, officers moved down the florescent-lit hallways after closing time and approached an officer acting as a shooter in the open areas of the mall. The popping of pellet guns and police commands echoed in the nearly vacant building.
"This is the biggest shopping mall in Northwest Indiana, so we want to keep up our skills and be prepared for anything that happens," said Lt. Greg Viator, the patrol commander who led the event.
Viator said the active shooter program has been held annually for the last 10 years. It helps train officers with mall security because security workers are the people who give vital information to officers arriving at the scene.
Employees of Professional Security Consultants, a Los Angeles-based private security force, and some mall retailers attended the event and watched a video on a mall shooting scenario. They then became part of the exercise.
"They throw all the participants into it at the last minute so that we're surprised and we would act like any other innocent bystander," said Lisa DeVries, marketing director for the Southlake mall.
DeVries said it was just another way they work with the Hobart Police Department, which has an office in the mall.
"We can give them an area to practice safety and security drills for preparation in case anything were to happen in the Merrillville area," DeVries said.
Though no shootings have occurred at the mall, Officer Timothy Pochran said the training would prevent casualties if a scenario did arise because officers would not have to wait for a SWAT team to move into the area.
"You can't wait for backup," said Pochran, who was one of the three active shooting instructors. "The more time you wait, the more people get hurt. If Chicago gets the Olympics, being that we're so close, this could be a target point for a possible terrorist attack because of the amount of people who visit the mall."
Regardless of whether there is an occasion to use the skills, officers said it helped to practice and be prepared.
"It's great to practice," Patrolman Steve Aponte said. "It keeps us up to date with our training just in case something ever happened."