Private firm trains South Florida cops on anti-terrorist tactics

A private firm formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks has hired war veterans to train local police officers how to confront active shooters and deal with terrorist situations.

04/10/2014 4:55 PM

04/10/2014 8:46 PM

Eric Augustus stood firm at the top of a dimly lit stairwell in an abandoned hospital building in Pembroke Pines, his arms wrapped around a hostage who was his shield, his weapon pointed at the police officers quickly ascending the stairs.

Augustus executed his hostage — but in less time than it takes to boil an egg, waves of police officers spread out through the sprawling structure and successfully gunned down Augustus and two other terrorists, freeing nine other hostages.

“I executed him in front of ya,” Augustus told his attackers. “But you guys had us in less than two minutes. You’re closing that distance to try and stop it.”

In real life, Augustus is a sergeant in the SWAT unit of the Hollywood Police Department. His attackers were law enforcement officers from four South Florida police agencies, and the hostages were a combination of police and employees of the private security firm training them in how to deal with active shooting incidents and terrorist attacks.

The mock scenario played out this week on the grounds of the old South Florida State Hospital along University Drive, a tan and decaying three-story structure that once was a mental health facility.

There, under a cluster of oak and gumbo limbo trees and inside the lengthy hallways and decrepit hospital rooms, Green Beret Joe Witty, who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, watched closely and gave instruction on the importance of communicating and pressing the offensive against active shooters.

A private firm called Security Solutions International has been offering the two-day classes for more than a decade — a direct response, its directors say, to the increasing numbers of mass shootings that have taken place since the 2001 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“It’s been a crazy week, the L.A. cops, a kid stabbed 20 kids in Pennsylvania,” said SSI President Henry Morgenstern, who says he spent 21 years in Israel, without further explanation. “Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse because of the successful attacks, like Fort Hood. The incidents are alarmingly rising.”

Whether those statements are accurate isn’t of concern to Morgenstern or the students, who this week came from police department SWAT teams in Hollywood, North Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Riviera Beach.

The yearly exercise costs about $400 per officer, the fee usually covered by the police departments. It’s a two-day class. Day One is strictly in the classroom; the next day is spent in the field. Students bring much of their own gear, but are supplied with semi-automatic weapons outfitted with paint ball-like bullets and fake bolts for their AR-15s.

If someone had stumbled onto the scene this week, the sight of heavily geared officers crouching behind vehicles and trees and sprinting toward a building, with the sound of gunfire in the background, surely would have been alarming.

The only giveaway that it wasn’t real: Yellow and blue spots on the officers’ gear where they were hit by faux ammo.

“You’ve heard the cries about the militarization of police forces,” said Morgenstern, bent on hyperbole and speaking away from the action and out of the hot sun. “The only problem is that the people who are attacking are very well-organized and have studied the military, like at Virginia Tech,” where a student shot and killed 32 people in 2007.

Meanwhile, about 30 yards from where the action had taken place, Garrett Machina, an SSI instructor, teaches the importance of communication and moving forward in waves, taking the fight to the active shooter to get him out of his comfort zone.

At one point, Witty, the Green Beret, questions an officer about a team member who was shot and immobilized by a terrorist on the second floor of the hospital building. When the officer stalls in response, Witty interrupts.

“You step over him. Stop the deadly threat. . . . You can’t save him unless you eliminate the deadly threat,” Witty said. “But that was good, controlled aggression. Outstanding work today.”

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