It was the weekly story time, eight days before Christmas, that drew a larger than normal crowd to Leesburg’s Chick-fil-A yesterday morning.
Parents and grandparents toting infants and toddlers huddled in the Leesburg restaurant’s dining room to hear a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” The picturesque moment was jarred when the manager on shift hurried into the room and yelled, “There is a man threatening to hurt every one. Get out!”
Rebecca Norman, who was attending the story time event with her two daughters, said she grabbed her purse and her children and ran to her car. A friend and her grandson who ran out of the restaurant without her purse and keys jumped in the car with them, and Norman sped away with the kids scared and crying in the back, unbuckled in their car seats.
“It was the most frightening experience to have your children in potential danger like that,” Norman said. “The first thing that goes through your mind is to get to safety for the sake of your children.”
For the patrons and employees in the restaurant at the time, and the dozen law enforcement officers who responded to the threat, today was a time to take deep breaths and reflect on their response, particularly at a time when public attacks have become more frequent.
The man, a 25-year-old, entered the restaurant about 10:20 a.m. and ordered the employees standing behind the counter to make their way to the back of the building. Employees initially thought the man was strapped with a bomb because they saw wires popping out of his clothing. Turns out, the wires were connected to a pair of ear buds, and the man was unarmed.
Someone, either a Chick-fil-A employee or customer, called 9-1-1 and within two minutes Leesburg Police Department officers had arrived, Police Chief Joseph Price said. They took the man into custody, but as of this afternoon he is not facing charges. Price said his behavior is likely related to a mental health issue. “He is in mental evaluation status right now,” the chief said.
In an interview today, Price commended everyone at the restaurant, from the employees to the patrons, on “a very, very good” response.
In the hours following the incident, his department has been looking critically at the performance of its staff—from the officers to the dispatchers to the chief himself—during what could have been a deadly incident. The department’s staff undergoes intense training for worst case scenarios, and Price said that training has become all the more important in the last few years, as mass shootings and other organized attacks have become more frequent.
He noted that just this week there were email threats made to schools in New York City and Los Angeles.
“In today’s world, we have to stay cognizant of those type of things and make sure that our staff is trained on what our procedures and protocols are in those types of situations,” he said.
Many cities throughout the nation, including Baltimore, have experienced a tension between police officers and the communities they serve, especially following officer-involved shootings.
Because of that, Price said that now more than ever, his department is emphasizing its duty as a community defender. “Our role is really that of a guardian,” he said. On the other hand, law enforcement also need the skills of a warrior, he added. “That can be a challenging concept to balance,” he said.
He gave the example of the incident at Chick-fil-A on Thursday, when one minute officers were detaining a man who threatened to hurt people. And the next minute, they were trying to calm and comfort shaken toddlers.
Minutes after the suspect was taken off the property, one mother and her daughter appeared intimidated by the several uniformed police officers still at the restaurant. “She asked, ‘is it safe for us to come in,’” Price said, relaying the story. “One officer responded, ’Yes, ma’am, this is just a new service we’re offering,’ and opened the front door.’”
“That really captures the kind of police force we want to be,” Price said.
Thursday’s scare is also an opportunity to educate the public on how to respond in a threatening situation.
“When you’re confronted with an active, violent situation, the first thing you should do is run,” Price said. If that isn’t an option, he suggested finding a safe place to hide. “Secure yourself in a location where the bad person can’t get to you, like behind locked doors. The last resort is to fight.”
A Chick-fil-A manager referred Loudoun Now to a company spokesperson, who was not immediately available.
Contact Danielle Nadler at firstname.lastname@example.org.