National Night Out in downtown Janesville—the annual fun fair and block party hosted by Rock County law enforcement agencies—went off as usual Tuesday night with the usual goal: to break down the social barriers that can build up between police and residents.
But if you asked the officers how it felt to host a large public festival in the wake of a pair of weekend mass shootings that killed dozens in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, their responses stopped short of the philosophical.
“This has taken a planning process. The emergency operations have been planned for months. Numerous law enforcement agencies are on site, communications are organized. It’s strategic,” Janesville police Sgt. Josh Norem said, his eyes impossible to read behind sunglasses.
But there were philosophical questions beyond the logistical questions of National Night Out: In the wake of shootings that killed so many, how might one—an officer or anyone else—view National Night Out differently? Was there more of a reason for residents and police to come together?
And are National Nights Out big enough and influential enough to unify people or create change when it seems like deadly events like those in Dayton and El Paso are becoming more commonplace (even though, it must be said, such events remain rare)?
Janesville Police Chief David Moore was standing at a corner where a funk rock and R&B band was tuning up on a mobile stage, breaking into the first chords of “Get Down Tonight” in front of a crowd of hundreds of residents near the police headquarters on North Jackson Street.
Over his shoulder, kids spun a “wheel of prizes” at a credit union’s booth. A girl walked away with a free plastic Frisbee. Moore gave a fist bump to someone running the prize booth.
It was in this jovial environment that Moore took a stab at addressing the philosophical end of mass shootings—the questions of how such tragedies reverberate through other American communities that are hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“I wish I had some wonderful answers to completely solve this thing that’s going on in America. But none of us really do,” Moore said.
Moore said his department and other local agencies were working to get a message out that is more universal: Communication between police and the public is a vital link, one that police departments all over the country seek to strengthen.
Police in departments nationwide see National Nights Out as a way to do that.
“These types of events are here to build community trust. If we get 5,000 people here, which we sometimes do, it’ll accomplish that,” Moore said.
On the topic of recent mass shootings in the U.S., both Moore and Norem said there’s often a common thread. Police tend to find evidence, often existing on social media or in other records, of a shooter’s intentions or frame of mind in the hours or days before shootings.
In some cases, authorities could respond to potential threats before a shooting happens. Such an intervention is more likely if residents report tips to police—sometimes glaring ones—that something is amiss.
Connor Betts, 24, is the man police say showed up at bar in Dayton in the early hours of Sunday wearing body armor and opened fire with a rifle, shooting and killing nine people, including his sister, and wounding dozens of others before police shot and killed him.
CNN reported Tuesday that Dayton police and FBI officials said investigators have found evidence Betts had been “exploring violent ideologies,” including mass shootings, prior to his attack.
“If you see something, say something,” Norem said. “We get anonymous reports to CrimeStoppers. People report these things every day, every shift. We will look into the situations.”
That message was delivered alongside staged demonstrations of police tactical responses, including responses to active shooters and armed prisoners—standard fare at National Night Out.
Not part of the exhibitions were additional officers Moore said were stationed in the area to keep a watchful eye over the event.
Moore would not say where the officers were stationed, but he said that as a response to the specter of mass shootings, increased public safety measures at big events have become more common.
“I’ll say my guys are highly skilled at addressing those issues. They train and train and train,” Moore said.
Robert “Fritz” Luebke of Janesville brought in a set of monster trucks as part of a booth supporting military veterans.
If you craned your neck to look up at one of Fritz’s trucks, you might have caught a glimpse of the roof of Janesville City Hall, where two police officers were stationed, their heads peeking out over the parapet.
One held binoculars to his eyes. His head was on a swivel, panning back and forth across the crowd.
Luebke said he saw the officers atop City Hall the second he arrived. He didn’t know if other attendees were aware of the rooftop cops.
“The way I see it, no matter how you look at what’s going on in this country, those guys standing up on that roof are protecting you and me,” he said. “I trust them.”
Rock County officials see a need to improve safety measures after chemical fumes led to the evacuation of the courthouse in Janesville on July 19.
New procedures to keep some offices running remotely and purchase of an emergency alert system are among the changes contemplated, Facilities Management Director Brent Sutherland told the county board’s General Services Committee on Tuesday.
A worker pumped a chemical mixture used to treat the courthouse cooling system’s water into the wrong receptacle that morning, causing a reaction that produced chlorine gas, Sutherland said.
“The employee is beating themselves up pretty hard,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland was responding to a question by county board member Yuri Rashkin, who asked if disciplinary action was considered.
Sutherland said no disciplinary action was taken because poor performance was not involved.
“It was an honest mistake that happened. He wasn’t being careless,” Sutherland said.
Randy Terronez, assistant to the county administrator, who was in charge the day of the fumes release, said the worker returned to the courthouse twice after being treated at a hospital, out of concern for courthouse operations and staff, and he had to be told to go home.
“He was very, very remorseful,” Terronez said.
Costs of the emergency have not been calculated, the county’s new risk manager, Terri Carlson, told the committee. The event is covered by insurance with a $200,000 deductible, she said.
The chemical supply company usually fills the containers in the boiler room, but staff members also routinely have filled the containers as needed, Sutherland said.
In this case, the worker noticed the sulfuric acid mixture was running low and started filling a container to make sure the chemical would not run out over the weekend, Sutherland said.
But the worker selected a different chemical, sodium hypochlorite, which is used to kill bacteria in the cooling system water.
The worker used a pump to transfer the product, and a chemical reaction began producing gas.
“The gas soon filled the boiler room, which is adjacent to the parking garage. He opened the door to ventilate the boiler room, and the gas started to fill the parking garage,” according to a handout Sutherland gave to the committee.
From now on, only the supplier will be allowed to fill the containers, Sutherland said.
In addition, the county is looking into having the barrels of chemicals labeled more prominently. All the barrels are white, but the labels are different, Sutherland said.
As the fumes spread, workers shut down the air-handling system, but not before fumes were sucked into the air intake at the front of the courthouse, Sutherland said.
Sheriff’s office records show the 911 call came in at 8:30 a.m., and the courthouse was completely evacuated at 8:50 a.m.
Sutherland said after the meeting that he would like to see that happen faster.
Other changes the county is working on:
Currently, the county uses a phone tree to alert employees, with a supervisor notifying workers one at a time, which takes time and risks missing someone, according to the handout.
Employees also were alerted to the emergency with a public-address system.
The center is in the basement of the Rock County Health Care Center, 3.7 miles away.
Some key facts from sheriff’s office and Janesville Fire Department reports about the incident:
Kurt Randall Bergmann
Sharon K. Briggs
William J. Hayes
Richard J. “Dick” Seidl
Beverly B. Thorngate
Jean Ann Vance