Every parent's worst nightmare was simulated Friday morning in the area behind New Milford's borough hall. A 12-year old girl, last seen by her mother on her bike at Pavone Field, was missing. During the course of the investigation it was discovered that she had agreed to meet someone she had met on-line and was seen by witnesses getting into a dark minivan.
Hosted by New Milford Police Chief Frank Papapietro, a founding member of the County's Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), this child abduction drill was a coordinated training exercise between the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and the RDF. It consisted of a team of approximately 100 men and women selected from local law enforcement agencies and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.
The RDF is an elite team of highly trained members of law enforcement who respond as a unit to specific missions throughout the county. They are deployed to assist a local police chief with a particular need that exceeds his department's resources.
Established in 1994, RDF was the brainchild of Papapietro, Cliffside Park Police Chief Donald Keane, and Lodi Police Chief Vincent Caruso as a cooperative county resource four years following the civil unrest that came after the 1990 police shooting of a civilian teen by Teaneck officer Gary Spath. One of RDF's first missions was to act as a crowd control resource for the 1994 Soccer World Cup at Giants Stadium.
According to Papapietro, the original focus of the the RDF was crowd and riot control, but they are constantly adapting their training and education to deal with current threats. The RDF was deployed to assist in securing the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 11 and were on notice for "Occupy Teaneck" that took place Thursday at Votee Park.
Friday's child abduction drill, scripted by Cpt. Joe Hornyak of the Prosecutor's Office Child Abduction Response Team (CART) and based on real events, was overseen by Papapietro and Steven Cucciniello, Chief of Detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. Papapietro said, "We've all worked together for so many years that these drills are fluid and go very smoothly."
In response Cucciniello said, "It's because Chief Papapietro is a professional and so easy to work with. That's why we chose New Milford as the place to have the drill." When Papapietro laughed, Cucciniello added, "I mean it. I'm not just blowing smoke."
Although Papapietro tried to deflect this compliment, it's clear that these two law enforcement giants have an established camaraderie and mutual respect for what each brings to the table in mobilizing RDF.
Deploying RDF is a massive undertaking that these professionals continue to choreograph down to the minutest detail in these drills. In addition to mobilizing the mass of men and women comprising the search and rescue foot patrol, K-9's were called into service. Also present on site was the Bergen County Mobile Command Unit, a rolling communications center equipped with state-of-the-art radios and computer technology, and the Bergen County Sheriff's Mobile Crime Scene Unit where field evidence can be collected and processed. Also called into service was a N.J. State Police helicopter that hovered over the scene searching for evidence of the missing girl from above the tree line.
Although Papapietro and Cucciniello knew the outcome of the drill, no one in the field did, giving them the opportunity to assess everyone's skills should this simulation one day be a real situation.
On the grounds where the girl was reportedly last seen, a platoon of police was divided into two teams, Alpha and Omega, and directed with the help of RDF commanding officer Vincent Quatrone, Deputy Chief of the Lodi Police Dpt. The uniformed phalanx methodically combed their way through the muddy woods painstakingly looking for and collecting evidence while careful not to disturb too much of the surrounding area should they need to return. Found was one Ugg boot, a backpack, and a vest. Each item was flagged and a member of the Bergen County Investigative Unit (BCI) came to collect it.
The unified command post was located in a conference room outside Papapietro's office and was the scene of much action. Cpt. Mark Lepinski, Communications Director and County 9-1-1 Coordinator for the Bergen County Police, was coming in and out of the office supplying status updates; Lt. Dwane Razzetti who directs the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management was overseeing the field commanders scanning system that allows everyone present on-scene to have the bar codes on their police i.d. scanned by hand-held scanning devices. The information recorded from this bar-code scanning system includes all pertinent information, including any health issues should an emergency responder be hurt on the field and need immediate medical care. It also acts as an accountability system since it can record who is no longer at the scene if someone is "scanned out."
It was from the unified command post that all field communications were relayed. Detailed maps outlining the area from behind the fields of borough hall to the abandoned Oradell Water Company property were marked to reflect the finding of evidence to record any pattern of a trail. Witness reports and 9-1-1 calls were assessed and their viability as reliable sources of information were determined.
In the case of a suspected child abduction, Lt. Eric Baum who heads the Bergen County Sex Crimes Unit, said local law enforcement can utilize a reverse 9-1-1 call to residents of that town, as was simulated in this drill, but an AMBER Alert can only be issued through the N.J. State Police in accordance with the N.J. Attorney General Guidelines regarding the issuance of an AMBER Alert. According to the N.J. State Police, the following criteria must be met before an AMBER Alert is issued:
- There is reason to believe that a child under the age of 18 has been abducted.
- There is reason to believe that the abducted child may be in danger of death or serious bodily injury.
- There is reason to believe that an AMBER Alert would assist in locating the child considering all relevant circumstances, including whether there is enough descriptive information available, and the amount of time that has elapsed since the child was last seen and was reported missing.
In the end, the solid work of the RDF team resulted in finding the girl alive near the abandoned Water Company property; the suspect was arrested. The entire drill took just under four hours to complete. At the de-briefing meeting Papapietro and Cuccciniello agreed that the training exercise went very smoothly--the mobile command unit, radio communications and all resources were effectively and properly deployed.
The seamless merger of the talents and strengths of these commanding members of the RDF, many who have come up through the rank and file together, comes from years of working and training together. "We've worked on so much together that by now we each know what the other is thinking," Papapietro said.
A full briefing with the commanding RDF officers will be held the first week of December to determine what, if anything, was more of a "hindrance than a help," as well as what systems can be streamlined and improved upon.
Papapietro said that the RDF is funded through confiscated funds and a portion of the county budget.