POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Exclusive: NJOHSP director discusses safety of NJ schools, infrastructure

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

In the wake of the slaughter in a Parkland, Florida high school, New Jersey’s schools have added to their routines this semester active shooter drills, armed guards, video surveillance and safety training. New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness is stepping up security measures as well. Its director, Jared Maples, joins correspondent Leah Mishkin.

Mishkin: So when I was putting this interview together, I was really thinking about what conversations I’m hearing around people’s dinner tables and overhearing in the subway and a big topic right now is school shootings. I know Gov. Murphy held a press conference right after the Parkland shooting. You were there. I want to quote you correctly, but you said prevention is your goal. So, what is your strategy to prevent these school shootings from happening here in our state?

Maples: Sure, so in the immediate aftermath, that same day, the governor and I talked, along with the attorney general, Col. Callahan, the Department of Education, the secretary of Education and down the line of the Cabinet, we all talked about what we can do in advance of that and to hopefully prevent that happening in New Jersey. One of the key areas we landed on was, we have the Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force, or the Task Force by nomenclature. That group is responsible for bringing the Cabinet together and talking about security best practices, making sure that those are disseminated out throughout not only the state government, then also to our federal, state and local partners so they’re aware of what we see and what we can do as far as everything from simple as locks and alarms and some of those best practices. But then also through that group we also offer security site assessments, so we can go out to schools themselves, help them understand where their gaps and vulnerabilities might be as it pertains to not just active shooters, but then any other threat that could possibly happen to them in a school district. And then finally, we actually work with the Department of Education from the state level and we have multiple folks from their office that are detailed to our office at Homeland Security and they go out and they do no-warning drills in schools. They’ve done a good portion of the school districts in the state. I won’t get into the specific number, but a lot of them and we’re working to do more where they actually do active shooter drills unannounced to test the capabilities in those schools. So, those are three areas we’ve really tried to focus on, and the forth area is getting back to a question we’ve talked about a couple of times which is notifications from the public. So, when we find out that there’s an issue, it’s so important for us to be notified that there’s a potential issue and then we can deal with that in a way that respects the rights of anybody involved in that situation. The attorney general actually put out a directive.

Mishkin: It’s interesting you mentioned that because at that press conference, they attorney general did mention they’re going to review to make sure that nothing is falling through the cracks when tips are provided to law enforcement. So, do you think as the head of this department that tips are falling through the cracks?

Maples: I don’t believe that they are falling through the cracks. That was really, in New Jersey, that was definitely a mechanism to kind of double confirm or make sure positively. It did a couple key things, that directive. It made the reporting immediate. It made it mandatory for school violence, etc. We’ve seen an uptick in reporting, so a lot of that is because of public awareness certainly. But then also it’s just understanding that people do need to let us know that there’s a problem, and they’ve been calling the hotlines and sending email tips and we would be able to do that, again respecting everyone’s rights, but also the safety of our citizens and visitors.

Mishkin: But those tips get followed through? Because I’m not saying in this state, but in other cases there have been instances where these terrorists were known to police beforehand.

Maples: Absolutely. So, one of the things in New Jersey I kind of briefly touched on it, but my office coordinates the tips. That doesn’t happen in a lot of other states in the way that it does here, which is a single focal point. So, our folks actually sit 24/7 with the State Police at the ROIC, the Regional Operations Intelligence Center. And that information, it’s really the button or the hub for all these suspicious activity reporting, right there. That gets disseminated by an automatic process, an automated database, to federal, state and local entities. So if it were to happen in one of our towns, everyone that would need to know, knows, again up to the county level. So, it’s a little bit different in that we have an automated process in a one, unified, integrated system that’s different than a lot of other states, if not every other state.

Mishkin: And when you talk about that, I’m thinking about resources; there are a limited number of resources. Another topic that I was thinking about was infrastructure. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in our country, so what are you doing to protect those hard targets, especially in light of recent news that the U.S. government says there were alleged Russian hacks to our infrastructure.

Maples: So, quite a bit, and I think it’s a great segue into what we do with the local law enforcement [at the] county level. We rely on them heavily for force multiplication, force multipliers, along with the State Police. So, when you talk about being able to respond or investigate, starting with school threats, we have to use them and leverage them as partners. And that’s what we do from the state side, get them the information and then follow up on it from our side. When it comes to critical infrastructure, we do maintain the list, of course, of assets. We have a pretty good grant stream funding to protect those assets. It can be everything from target hardening, so physical security, cameras, all those other aspects. And then having that robust relationship with the private sector. We’ve really focused on making sure that we’re in the loop with the private sector, and they’re in the loop with us and we know what the other’s doing to make sure, because we are the most densely populated state in the country, 1,200 people per square mile and the rest of the country averages 92. As far as our critical infrastructure sights, without getting into the specific number, we are at the very top of the country as far as what’s considered critical assets to the federal government. So, literally the national economy, national security objectives are reliant on things that are here in our state. So, we do have a lot of those issues to deal with and we deal with them through, again the partnership aspect, making sure we have the relationships across not just the public sector and the law enforcement, but also the private sector and these companies.

This is part two in a three part series of interviews with Jared Maples, the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. You can watch part one here.