On the morning of Tuesday, April 19, the Burlington Massachusetts Police Department received a 911 call from the security office at a Burlington Mall. They reported that five Mall shoppers witnessed a white male appearing to be carrying a rifle had just entered the lower level men’s room in the Nordstrom store. About a half-hour later, forty police officers from Burlington and the surrounding towns of Woburn, Billerica, Lexington, Wilmington, and Bedford, the Massachusetts State Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement were on the scene. The Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement SWAT Team was there in full regalia, including body armor and shields. They brought with them their mobile Incident Command Center and an Armored Response Vehicle. A Massachusetts State Police helicopter circled above the Mall.
Police who arrived first on the scene checked the men’s room. They immediately secured the inner and outer perimeters and with location security officers evacuated the Mall. Some worried workers locked themselves in their stores. The SWAT Team then performed a search of the mall.
In the meantime, an employee of nearby Lahey Clinic notified Burlington Police that he might be the man they were looking for. The State Police confirmed that they had their man, but in fact, he was carrying an umbrella that was contained in a sling-like case and not a rifle.
About two and a half hours after the initial 911 call the Mall was reopened.
Burlington Police Chief Michael Kent said police acted on the information available at the time. “We had five people say it was a weapon. We tell people to be aware and vigilant and report anything suspicious and we take all calls seriously. If the same thing happened tomorrow we would have the same response.”
This incident is not isolated. It happened at an Atlanta University Campus in the summer of 2010 where someone mistook a similar umbrella with a samurai sword-like handle for a weapon.
It resulted with the same over-the-top police response.
Moreover, some irresponsible umbrella manufactures intentionally design not only samurai sword-like handled umbrellas but also umbrella handles with realistic-looking rifle butts. These do not look real, but many folks have never seen a real gun.
It seems to me that it is incumbent upon police, citizens, consumers as well as manufacturers of such products to use good judgment.
Good judgment would have dictated that a cadre of police officers should respond first and preliminarily investigate the report. If they had, I am certain that they would have determined form the surveillance video that it was not a rifle.
A pragmatic approach would have been for shoppers to take a closer look first before they took action, even approach the suspect and inquire in a discreet way about what their suspect is carrying. If they had, they would have discovered an umbrella does not look like a rifle.
Logic would have dictated that most likely a person is not going to walk around with an unconcealed weapon. The greater concern should be the proliferation of guns and those that are concealed.
Manufacturers should exercise good judgment in the products they produce. Customers also must exercise good judgment in the products they buy. Caveat emptor is always wise before making any purchase. Clearly any product that realistically looks like a samurai sword or a gun is sure to attract attention, especially from the police.
Contrary to Burlington Police Chief Kent, the police should not have the same response the next time. The cost to deploy such an armada of police officers, the chance that such a call might be a decoy or a purposeful detraction from some real crime or even a terrorist act, the loss of business to the Mall, the unnecessary fear it aroused, and a concern for citizens whose lives would be significantly interrupted should dictate a more reasoned response the next time.
Fear is an important attribute, for it encourages us to take appropriate measures for our safety. The call to be vigilant and report suspicious activity is important. But it should always be accompanied with good judgment, commonly known as common sense.
John R. Ellement and Martin Finucane, Globe Staff, and Nicholas Goss and Katherine Landergan, Globe Correspondents, Mass. mall ‘gunman’ was just carrying umbrella, Boston.com Metro Desk
Marie Szaniszlo, Chief blasts sales of sword-style umbrella, BostonHerald.com