Early on in Nassau Hall gunshot incident, officers realized situation was not emergency
“Public Safety is receiving reports of possibility of shots fired in Nassau Hall,” a Princeton Police Department dispatcher saidaround 7:57 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, alerting all officers on duty.
At that time, a concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg was going on in Richardson Auditorium, directly west of Nassau Hall. Directly south, journalist Ezra Klein was delivering a lecture in Whig Hall. Together, these two events gathered hundreds of people in the area.
A few minutes earlier, a University administrator, working after business hours, had reported hearing noises below her third-floor office in Nassau Hall. Although unsure, she thought the noises could possibly be gunshots. In the back of her mind, she remembered an incident that had occurred earlier that morning in Nassau Hall, where a visitor had received medical attention for exhibiting strange behavior.
“I’m not sure, probably nothing, but it almost sounded like shooting,” she said in a phone call at 7:52 p.m. to the University’s Department of Public Safety, according to a transcript of the call provided by DPS.
The call prompted a substantial response from the local Princeton police, as well as multiple nearby agencies, who came to the University as support. In the next couple of hours, officers armed with rifles entered Nassau Hall twice before declaring the building clear.
Eventually, the University determined that the reported gunshot sounds actually came from a hammer striking a chisel on the second floor and closed the investigation.
But an examination into the sequence of events that took place that day, reconstructed using records obtained under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, as well as through interviews with those directly involved, shows that Princeton police officers realized early on that the situation was not an emergency involving an active shooter.
In a call to the nearby Lawrence Police Department asking for support minutes after the University issued its first campus-wide alert, Princeton police officers explicitly asked for a non-emergency response, recognizing that there was no immediate threat at the time. The call took place more than an hour and a half before the University-wide all-clear message was sent.
In addition, the caller repeated three times during her initial call that she thought the noises she had heard were most likely “nothing,” only conceding once that it could possibly be “something.”
“The reaction was kind of overwhelming,” the caller said in a later interview. She was granted anonymity for this article to freely discuss the situation.
A Tuesday morning incident
That morning, just past 10 a.m., a 63-year old visitor to Nassau Hall had been removed from the building by DPS officers and issued a persona non grata, meaning he was not allowed to step on campus for a period of time. The visitor “appeared to be somewhat unstable,” University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said, adding that he was transported to a local hospital to receive medical attention.
The administrator who made the call later that evening was not in the building when the morning incident happened, but learned about it through emails from her colleagues who, she said, advised her not to come back for the time being.
The incident was in the back of her mind that evening, when she heard four bangs in rapid succession coming from below her office. She often worked after hours, she said, and was used to certain noises, but had never heard something like this.
She locked herself in her office and continued working for about 15 minutes, still thinking about the incident that morning, before looking up DPS’s phone number and finally making the call at 7:52 p.m.
“I thought it made sense for me to call back and warn, especially because of that incident in the morning,” the caller said. “I thought that maybe that crazyperson came back."
Her call prompted DPS to inform the local police about the incident, according to standard protocol for situations that involve firearms.
The Princeton police officers were dispatched five minutes later and an officer initially expressed confusion about the location of Nassau Hall, according to a recording of their radio transmissions.
“Which one is Nassau Hall?” the officer said.
“It’s the main hall right on Nassau Street,” the dispatcher replied.
Getting the caller to safety
Upon the officers’ arrival — around 8 p.m., according to eyewitness accounts — they were provided with prox cards by DPS that granted them access to Nassau Hall. Meanwhile, DPS set up a base in the parking lot behind Alexander Hall, where the concert was still going on and was allowed to conclude as scheduled.
At 8:03 p.m.,11 minutes after the initial call, four officers made the first of two entries into the building in order to retrieve the caller. They split into two groups, one inspecting the first two floors while the second proceeded directly to the third floor.
“Make the call to the Sheriff’s Office as well, just advise him what we have,” an officer said just as the other four officers were making entry. The Mercer County Sheriff’s Office operates a Special Weapons and Tactics team, but informed the Princeton Police dispatcher that there would be no response from their team, leaving the local officers with the responsibility of clearing the building themselves.
Most of the doors in the building were closed and no one was seen inside Nassau Hall, Police Sgt. Geoffrey Maurer, one of the officers,wrote in his narrative of the incident. Initially unsure of whether the caller was in room 303 or 302, the officers told her to shelter in place.
Maurer also reported hearing “booms from lower in the building” that resembled gunshots, but dismissed them as heat or water pipes. He later learned that there was in fact no furnace in Nassau Hall.
While the officers were in the building, at around 8:05 p.m., the first emergency message of the evening, sent through the Princeton Telephone and Email Notification System, went out to all employees who work in Nassau Hall, advising them to stay in place if they were inside the building.
“They just came and knocked [on] the door and they asked me to go outside,” the caller said, noting that the officers first walked around inside the building for about 10 minutes.
As the officers walked down the stairs with the caller, they were already preparing for the next stage of their response.
“Once you get the caller out, we’re going to establish an exterior perimeter,” an officer outside told the four officers who were still inside. “Then we’ll have additional units come in, and you can clear the building.”
Maurer propped a door open as he left the building with the caller to be better able to hear any further noises, he told the other officers. The caller was taken to the DPS command center by Alexander Hall, where she was interviewed by officers Det. Annette Henderson and Maurer.
The first entry concluded at 8:15 p.m, but the first calls for support were only placed 35 minutes later, and the second entry began more than 30 minutes after that.
Throughout the night, the Princeton Police maintained an interior perimeter around the area, while DPS maintained a larger exterior perimeter.
At one point in between the first entry and the calls for support, an officer standing outside reported seeing lights flickering on the third floor.
“Did you actually see somebody on the third floor?” another officer asked.
“I saw the light go out. It was on and then it went out,” the officer who had seen the lights responded, although he could not confirm whether he had actually seen a person inside the building.
Searching Nassau Hall
A few minutes later, acting chief of the Princeton Police Capt. Nick Sutter and Lt. Chris Morgan, the on-call superior officer that evening, were reported to be on their way to the scene. After conferring, it was determined that Princeton police officers would also be in charge of entering and clearing the building, according to Maurer’s report.
As these discussions were going on, the first University-wide PTENS message was sent out at 8:40 p.m., alerting community members to the reports of gunshots in Nassau Hall.
“Stay away from area,” the message read. “Updates to follow.”
The police departments of Lawrence and West Windsor were contacted for perimeter support at 8:50 p.m. When Lawrence asked about the priority of their response, the answer revealed what was then Princeton Police's current assessment of the situation.
“They can come with a non-emergency response,” an officer instructed the dispatcher.
In a later interview, Sutter said that at that moment they had already recognized this was not an active shooter situation.
“There was no reason for the assets to respond with a high priority," he explained.
The West Windsor Police Department could not send anyone, the dispatcher said, leading the officers to contact the Plainsboro Police Department at 9:01 p.m. Plainsboro also had trouble finding Nassau Hall and were instead directed to Palmer Square, from where an officer would direct them toward the Alexander Hall command center.
The Princeton police officers finally made their second entry at 9:26 p.m., more than an hour after the first entry had concluded.
“We are going to have to activate the light real quick, cause it’ll [be] bumpy in there,” an officer said, referring to the uneven ground of Nassau Hall.
Most of the details of the second entry remain unclear, as the officers refrained from communicating through their radios during the search for the safety of the officers inside.However, Maurer wrote in his report that they did not find any signs of a shooting or a shooter inside Nassau Hall.
During this time, the second University-wide PTENS message was sent, stating for the first time that no injuries have been reported, but also noting that police were still on the scene.
Nassau Hall was declared all clear at 10:11 p.m. by the Princeton Police. A final PTENS message sent at 10:30 p.m. conveyed this message to the University community, although it attributed the all-clear determination to DPS.
In hindsight, the caller conceded that during her initial call, she expected DPS to tell her that the sounds she had heard were coming from construction work or something similar.
“The reaction for myself was surprise,” she said. “I didn’t expect that kind of reaction.”
Contributor Chitra Marti contributed reporting