By  on January 26, 2014

After a rash of shootings in public spaces — including last year’s deadly siege of a mall in Nairobi, Kenya — retailers, mall operators and police have been preparing for the worst.

Those efforts appear to have paid off during a murder-suicide at a Maryland mall Saturday that left three dead and one other person recovering from a gunshot wound.

When Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, of College Park, Md., who was carrying crude explosive devices and fired off six to nine shotgun rounds inside and outside a Zumiez store at The Mall in Columbia, scores of retail workers and shoppers stayed put and out of sight.

“Many people left and many people stayed and did what they were trained to do and that was shelter in place,” said Howard County police chief William McMahon at a press conference outside the mall Saturday.

Police arrived on the scene two minutes after receiving 911 calls and spent several hours clearing the mall. Twenty-one-year-old Brianna Benlolo, also of College Park, and 25-year-old Tyler Johnson, of Mt. Airy, Md., — both Zumiez employees — were killed in the incident.

Security expert Richard Mellor, senior adviser for asset protection at the National Retail Federation, said Howard County police as well as security personnel from the mall went over just such a scenario in November, at a “tabletop” training session coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mellor, who was also at the session, said the training effort came on the heels of the mall attack in Nairobi, where terrorists took at least 200 hostages and killed more than 60.

“This was to get people to talk about how to react to these events,” he said. “Very specifically what happened [on Saturday] at this event is one of the components of the training.”

Retailers and society in general have grown increasingly attuned to such events. A New Jersey lawyer was killed in a carjacking outside The Mall at Short Hills last month and, in November, a young man shot up the Garden State Plaza mall, frightening but not injuring shoppers, before taking his own life.

Mellor said retailers and law enforcement have been “doing an awful lot of collaboration in the last couple of years on training and the best practices to be followed during these types of hair-raising events.”

In many cases, sheltering in place is the appropriate response, he said.

That seems to have happened in Columbia. During an interview with WBAL-TV in Baltimore, a group of shoppers who were at a nearby Justice store said they heard two shots and were then hustled into a back room by associates at that store.

“Not always do you know where the gunfire is coming from and you could evacuate in the wrong direction so the shelter in place and lock down and be invisible is becoming the safest tactic to employ,” Mellor said. “Get out of sight and shelter first, lock [the store’s security gate] if you can. That played out to be a very practical scenario [on Saturday] and it did keep people safe.”

In a worse-case scenario, Mellor said people confronting an assailant in such a situation need to defend themselves. “Active shooters do not negotiate and talk, they just shoot,” he said.

Police spent Saturday night searching the mall with 20 K-9 units and said they found no other explosive devices. Authorities said the mall management would contact retailers directly to schedule appointments for them to access their businesses. The mall was scheduled to remain closed, possibly through Tuesday.

The center is situated about 20 miles southwest of Baltimore and is anchored by Sears, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and J.C. Penney.

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