USA on edge: Mass-shooting false alarms has a 'hidden cost' for police, community

Joey Garrison

Within minutes of the 911 call, police squad cars, ambulances and firetrucks showed up. Officers wore body armor and toted rifles as they searched stairwells and hallways. A helicopter hovered overhead.

The Fairfax County Police Department responded quickly and with full force last Wednesday to a report of a man with a weapon at an office tower in suburban McLean, Virginia, that is home to Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY.

In all, 89 police officers as well as personnel agencies were deployed for the next three hours. 

They were ready for the worst – but it was all for naught. A worker from a company on a different floor had called in the threat after spotting a disgruntled former employee believed to be dangerous. It was a case of mistaken identity and, in the end, a false alarm.

The headquarters for USA TODAY was evacuated after reports of a man with a weapon at the building in suburban Washington, D.C., on Aug. 7, 2019.

This nation is on edge after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that killed 31. 

'Everyone is safe': USA TODAY headquarters evacuated after unconfirmed report of person with a weapon

Similar false alarms about active shooters popped up last week in New York's Times Square, a Walmart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and at a shopping mall in West Valley City, Utah. Each triggered full-fledged emergency responses but turned out to be nothing. 

All that police manpower has a cost even if the threats don't materialize. And it's not just the financial cost of assigning so many men and women to one incident, experts say. 

"I'm more concerned with the psychological costs and the psychological impact, the stress and the potential trauma of these than I am of the monetary costs," said Frank Straub, former police chief of Spokane, Washington, and director of mass violence response studies at the National Police Foundation. 

He called them "hidden costs" – the trauma and stress of police officers who respond to what they believe are life-and-death situations and the psychological effect on a community.

"They have to get amped up. They have to get mentally prepared. They have to make sure that they respond in a way that's safe in the communities that they serve. There's an emotional impact on the officers," he said. For the communities, Straub said, there's a dual result of "reassurance" that police are ready but heightened anxiety.

Law enforcement officials encourage citizens to alert authorities whenever they spot suspicious activity. None of the cities are second-guessing their responses from last week. Each incident underscores the extent police will go to try to prevent the next major mass shooting.

"God forbid we don't take it seriously and that point in time we don't there is a real active shooter or somebody who is preparing an explosive device, or preparing to drive vehicle into the crowd," Straub said. "I think the human costs to that would be incredibly tragic to the community and to the officers who are responding."  

False alarms, real trauma: Americans are on edge after string of mass shootings

During large-scale emergency responses, police departments face operating costs to mobilize. There's also the money for the equipment needed for response teams. Sometimes officers assigned to the investigation can be pushed away from their usual duties.  

Sgt. Greg Bedor, spokesman for the Fairfax County Police Department, said the department doesn't have an exact figure on what it costs to deploy 89 police officers because they were on-duty officers. 

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said authorities "treated this event as though we had an active shooter." No crime was found, and the employee believed to have been spotted was found off the site.

"We need to look at this as a positive event," Roessler said. "Everybody in that building did the right thing. They saw something that was out of place and they called 911. Although this disrupted business, I'm glad to report no one has been harmed.

"This shows that people in our county and hopefully throughout the country are training themselves, both in the public and private sector. If you see something, say something."

Last week in West Valley City, Utah, a sign at the Valley Fair Mall fell, causing a loud noise that prompted someone to yell "shots!" 

Video from the scene showed a crowd fleeing and shouting, unaware that there was no danger. The mall was evacuated, and police said "a few skirmishes" occurred, according to KSL-TV, although no injuries were reported.

Roxeanne Vainuku, public information officer at the West Valley City Police Department, said 55 of the department's officers responded to the call from the mall. She estimated each worked three hours on the incident at an average of $30 per employee for an overall cost at $4,950.

A Walmart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was the site of a scare after two men pulled weapons on each other last Tuesday, but no shots were fired.

Savannah Jones, spokeswoman of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, said 65 sheriff's office employees – patrol deputies, detectives, traffic units and SWAT officers – responded to multiple 911 calls on a possible attack. She said an exact cost is unknown. 

Jones said the department "responded appropriately" given the recent mass shootings in the nation.

In New York, panic ensued after a loud noise sparked panic about a possible shooting in Times Square, which has long been a place on high alert. Crowds started screaming and running in the streets. 

The New York Police Department soon discovered that backfire from a motorcycle caused the commotion, and all was clear.

The NYPD declined to answer questions about the amount of resources deployed to the false alarm.

Straub, a 30-year police veteran, said that tips about threats can come in anonymously or on social media and that sometimes it turns into news before the incident is even investigated. He said each has to be taken seriously. 

"I'd rather see a strong response and it turn out to be false and nobody get hurt than it be a real attack and insufficient number of resources."

Contributing: Ryan W. Miller in McLean, Virginia

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mass shooting false alarms have a 'hidden cost' for police, community