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Illustration by Security Management

Confusion, Chaos After Driver Plows Through Holiday Parade

A driver in a red SUV broke through barricades and plowed through a crowd of people participating in a Christmas parade on 21 November in Waukesha, Wisconsin—a community of 70,000 people about 20 miles west of Milwaukee. More than 40 people were injured, and five were killed.

In video of the parade streamed on the city’s Facebook page, the SUV sped down the parade route while a police officer chased on foot. A police officer fired at the SUV in an attempt to stop it. The SUV rammed into parade participants, The Washington Post reported.  

“Today we experienced a horrible senseless tragedy,” said Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly, who was participating in the parade. “I walked in the parade at the beginning. I saw all the happy children sitting on the curb. I saw all the happy parents behind their children. I can still see the smiling faces.”

Video from bystanders showed the SUV hurtling past a young child dancing in the street, hitting a children’s dance team, a marching band, and some members of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies group. One parent recalled having to “go from one crumpled body to the other to find my daughter.” The driver kept driving after hitting participants, witness video footage showed.

Angelito Tenoria, a West Allis alderman who marched in the parade, recounted the experience to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“As we were walking back in between the buildings that we saw an SUV crossover, just put the pedal to the metal and just zooming full speed along the parade route,” he said. “And then were heard a loud bang, and just deafening cries and screams from people who are struck by the vehicle. And then, we saw people running away or stopping crying, and there, there are people on the ground who looked like they’d been hit by the vehicle.”

Law enforcement have identified and apprehended the suspected SUV driver as Darrell Brooks, 39, according to Waukesha Police. Brooks was allegedly fleeing a knife fight in the SUV and was reportedly behind the wheel when the vehicle entered the parade route, The Washington Post reported. An investigation into the incident is ongoing, and Waukesha Police Chief Dan Thompson said Sunday evening that it was "unknown at this time whether the incident has any nexus to terrorism."

Schools in Waukesha were closed today in response to the incident, and additional counselers were posted at all schools in the district to support students and staff. 

For additional context into municipal security and incidents during large-scale events, Security Management checked in with Joe Hendry, PSP, CLEE (Certified Law Enforcement Executive), senior director of on-site services for community safety services company Navigate360. Hendry was named an expert in civilian and law enforcement response to active threats by the Ohio Department of Homeland Security and Ohio Attorney General’s Office, and he served 27 years with the Kent State Police Department.

Given what we know so far about the situation in Waukesha, what should security professionals take away from the incident?

JH. Although we don’t know much about the particulars of this event, we should begin preparing for copycats right now. While vehicle-borne attacks were on everyone’s mind a few years ago after terrorist and other truck attacks took place, this should be a huge wake-up call today. Risk assessment of parade and race routes, physical security measures, and the number of personnel required to staff these events should all be reviewed immediately for upcoming events. With the upcoming holiday season, any event that is vulnerable—including outdoor holiday markets—should be looked at immediately with fresh eyes.

I think another point is that we need to remember, from initial reporting and video, is that there are several children injured in this attack. If I were working as a school-based security professional or law enforcement officer, I would be ramping up two things right now.

First, your threat assessment team should be preparing to review any threats that may arise from this event, and your team should be on high alert in bus lanes and during vehicle drop-off and pick-up times to watch for copycats. Children will have watched this, and a visible higher-security presence will make everyone more comfortable.

The second requirement is to get your counseling services prepared to handle any secondary stress or trauma that may occur in students or staff. While many people may not be directly affected by the event, some people can be negatively impacted by press coverage, and it can retraumatize them from previous events of violence in their own lives.

What makes large-scale events on public streets challenging, compared to events in places like parks or facilities?

JH. Any event that is spread out over several blocks or miles becomes a difficult security issue to solve. Many times, the events affect people in the area who do not want to be part of the events or who are not aware it is occurring.

Several times while working in law enforcement at these events, I noticed that people in vehicles would become visibly angry because they could not cross a street or because they had to wait. Once or twice, I had a concern that these people would just try to drive through regardless of what was going on.

A park or facility has a limited boundary that allows for security planning to focus on a more limited area. A parade route, race, or outdoor market, however, may have dozens of security gaps that need to be covered, requiring high numbers of personnel to get everyone in and out safely. Streets are wide routes to approach from by their nature, and they require different measures to block and secure them from other vehicles.

Are there any good practices for parades or special event security that municipalities or security professionals should double down on after this event?

JH. Risk assessment of the routes and planned security measures and assessment of people who may pose a threat to the event even in a general way are important. The use of vehicles and jersey barriers manned by personnel to block side-street access should be looked at as a must. Interior security vehicles can blend in as part of the parade but are in fact vehicles equipped for quick response. Vehicles must also follow to protect the rear of the parade.

We need to remember that we can stop some events, but this is about mitigating a determined attacker.

Given the wide stretch of many parade routes through towns and cities, how can security and law enforcement manage the perimeter footprint?

JH. If they have the resources internally to block roads with vehicles and personnel and conduct a threat and risk assessment of the event, that’s great. But that is not the reality for most locations.

The use of mutual aid from surrounding jurisdictions should be considered for traffic control and security. Every U.S. state has a (Department of Homeland Security) Fusion Center that may be able to help provide intelligence and access to other resources. We need to plan these events months in advance. Routes should be walked by security planners to look for vulnerabilities.

Don’t be afraid to use outside professionals with training and experience in these areas to assist internal resources. Use city maintenance, groundskeeping, and garbage vehicles to secure the streets on the route. Use police vehicles to patrol the outside access areas looking for suspicious vehicles and people. Some smaller parades use bounding overwatch of vehicles to secure side street access routes in addition to lead and follow vehicles. This out-of-the-box thinking allows for continuous security of the route without having to man every street continuously for the entire event.

Vehicle-borne attacks were heavily spotlighted three to five years ago in the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks and other truck attacks. What do the risks look like now?

JH. My thoughts are that the bad guys learned over 20 years ago that they don’t necessarily have to use weapons or explosives to create mass casualties. That’s one of the lessons learned on 9/11. We must keep our imagination open to the possibility of the threat or we won’t prepare properly. The risk looks the same as it did in the past. We must be open to the possibility of all threats. As humans, we tend to overfocus on single things and bias enters our thought process.

As physical security professionals, we need to look at the totality of an event—everything from gun violence to explosives to vehicles. We need to plan on the scale that it can and will happen here, so what can we do to mitigate, and hopefully stop, an event.

How can security and law enforcement avoid complacency around a longstanding event and keep reviewing risks with fresh eyes?

JH. All of us need to remind each other constantly not to become complacent. Designate someone in the working group during planning to be the person to second-guess every decision, even if they agree. Bring in outside agencies or professionals to review your plan and be prepared to receive constructive criticism. Planning should not be done in a closed system.