NYC Subway Attack Offers Reminders About Response to "Soft Target" Attacks

The attack on the N Train in New York this month was a stark reminder that tightly clustered people in confined spaces—like subway cars—are a tempting target for people hell-bent on mayhem and murder.

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Earlier this month, a man aboard a Manhattan-bound N Train during a typical Tuesday rush-hour, donned a gas mask, uncorked some manner of "smoke bomb," and opened fire on passengers as the vehicle pulled into the 36th Street Station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

According to reports, 29 people were injured—10 by the hail of gunfire—but by some miracle none were killed. 

The alleged gunman—identified by authorities as 62-year-old Frank James—then fled the train and melted away into the millions of New York denizens dazed by the incident.

Following a manhunt that lasted more than 30 hours, someone—by some accounts, he himself—called police, who took him into custody without incident.

Soft is Soft

Various news outlets breathlessly—and with stunningly little hesitation—called it a "terror attack."

Title 22 Chapter 38, of the U.S. Code states that terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

James reportedly had posted several hate-filled videos on social media in which he decried the United States as a racist nation "born in violence" and "kept alive by violence."

Given this attacker's somewhat bent, semi-political ranting, calling this incident terrorism may be accurate, but for all practical purposes is at this juncture the charges are all but irrelevant—he chose to attack a group of innocents essentially trapped in an aluminum tube. 

As an aside (and by way of comparison), the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway—conducted by members of the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo—was without question terrorism. The N Train shooting might be best classified as a hate crime. 

Regardless of the gunman's motive, this incident offers reminders about the persistent and omnipresent vulnerability of soft targets. The attack on the N Train this month is a stark reminder that tightly clustered people in confined spaces—like subway cars—are a tempting target for people hell-bent on mayhem and murder.

The incident in New York calls to memory the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival attack in 2017. In that "soft target" attack a gunman perched in a window on the 32nd-floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, and killed 60 people—wounding more than 400 others—before turning the gun on himself.

From a police training perspective, it really boils down to response. The response to active killer incidents has evolved from earlier tactics—the days of setting a perimeter, waiting to assemble an entry team, forming up in a perfect "Diamond" or "T" or "Y" deployment, and moving toward the sound of the gunfire are long gone.

For good or ill, solo officer—or small, hastily assembled group—response is now a "norm."

Consider the reaction to the "soft target" attack on the Gilroy (CA) Garlic Festival in July 2019.

That gunman opened fire with an AK-47 variant SKS rifle and killed three, including a six-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl, and a man in his twenties. Another 15 festival goers were injured in the attack.

The gunman was neutralized—stopped from further killing—when Detective Robert Basuino, Detective Eric Cryar, and Officer Hugo Del Moral responded in less than one minute.

"Despite the fact that they were outgunned with their handguns against a rifle, those three officers were able to fatally wound that suspect," Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee told reporters afterward.

All three men were later awarded the state's Medal of Valor for their actions.

Remaining Ready

In the aftermath of this week's attack, some have called for more NYPD officers on subway cars and the installation of metal detectors at the turnstiles—both of which are virtually impossible.

For starters, former Mayor Bill de Blasio cut more than one billion dollars from the NYPD budget during his time in office, leading to staffing shortfalls across the board. Further, any idea about adding new technology to every station in the subway system is borderline laughable—the existing video surveillance at the location of the attack failed to function.

It's been said many times—in this space and elsewhere—that so-called "gun free zones" are essentially an open invitation for deranged gunmen to attack. Furthermore, people hell-bent on committing acts of mass murder almost always foretell their intentions in either words or deeds prior to their attack.

For citizens, this means maintaining a level of situational awareness that few are willing—or able—to accomplish. For police, this means remaining ready to respond when—not if—such an attack cooks off in your sector.

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