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America’s Shopping Malls: Are They Prepared for Terrorism?

DALLAS -- Bridges, airports and, most recently, subways have all been identified by the government as possible targets for terrorists. But experts say another major public forum should be near the top of the list -- America's malls.<P>Shopping...

DALLAS — Bridges, airports and, most recently, subways have all been identified by the government as possible targets for terrorists. But experts say another major public forum should be near the top of the list — America’s malls.

Shopping centers are prime targets for suicide bombers, and not enough is being done to protect them, asserted terrorism expert Dr. Harvey Kushner in a recent interview. The shortfall, he says, comes down to the caliber of personnel and, of course, money.

“I can assure you that the biggest threat we face is suicide bombers in places where people gather, and malls are on the short list,” Kushner warned. “The security they have in malls is nonsense. Have you seen the people working the malls in security? It’s bad enough at the airports — can you imagine the malls? The quality of the people they hire has to be improved.”

Malls need to spend a lot more money to employ a college-educated security team and offer benefits and advancement, asserted Kushner, a consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, author of “The Future of Terrorism: Violence in the New Millennium,” and chair of the criminal justice department at Long Island University.

The warning comes as the Bush administration is calling for a reorganization of federal security organizations and a new cabinet level agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate such efforts.

“The only time something will get done is when something horrendous like 9/11 happens at a shopping mall, which it will,” Kushner declared. In time, he predicted, shoppers and their bags will be screened before entering a mall just as passengers are at airports.

But these measures cost money, which will most likely initially come out of the landlords’ pockets — and then be passed on to the tenants. Then, of course, there is always the possibility that the consumer ultimately will be the one paying, although on a year-over-year basis, retail prices have dropped since 2001 (despite wide monthly swings), so it’s unclear just how much retailers will be able to extract from their customers.

There are approximately 2,117 shopping centers that have 400,000 square feet of space or more in the U.S., including 1,182 enclosed malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The ICSC researches a biennial report on security costs and will begin studying that at the end of this year. However, the council said mall owners have reevaluated security since last fall and in some cases have reallocated funds within their security budgets for more officers. Typically, enclosed malls spend $1.15 a square foot on security, according to last year’s ICSC survey.

Many operators of existing malls have already taken such basic steps as:

Removing trash containers near entrances, since they could be used to conceal a bomb.

Checking identification of temporary workers, such as electricians.

Installing concrete pillars or planters to thwart vehicles from smashing through vulnerable points. In New York, for example, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which houses dozens of stores, large rectangular concrete planters have been staggered on the sidewalk along Eighth Avenue, its main entrance.

Consolidating deliveries into one area and monitoring the trucks closely, checking that bills of lading match contents of the trucks.

Stepping up patrols in and around the malls and parking lots.

Eliminating curbside parking.

Holding more frequent meetings about security — typically weekly.

Such stepped-up security is required since surveillance cameras aren’t necessarily a deterrent to crime, experts said. The cameras are not always monitored, nor are they always functioning, pointed out Dr. Rosemary Erickson, a crime prevention consultant and president of Athena Research Corp. in San Diego.

“The chances of seeing somebody doing something at a specific time are statistically almost nil,” she asserted. Cameras are most helpful in identifying thieves after the fact, she noted, adding that retailers should keep surveillance tapes at least a week and preferably a month.

The best defense against terrorism is to urge all employees and even customers to be on alert for suspicious behavior and to report it without hesitation, Erickson said.

“You need as many eyes and ears as you can get,” she said. “You can even post signs asking customers to be alert. Of course, there will be a lot more false alarms. [Recently] in Minneapolis, they blew something up that they thought was a bomb, but it was just a container for holding balloons.”

How much is too much? The malls must tread a fine line between making their properties intimidating to criminals and discouraging to shoppers. There are some subtle steps, however, that can greatly enhance security, experts say.

Erickson recommended containing the perimeter of the mall with a limited number of entrances, good fencing, bright lighting and concrete barriers (large concrete planters make effective and attractive barricades). Parking lots and garages also must be assessed.

“The big thing we are pushing is protection from vehicles and training staff to be aware of people and packages,” said Rich Maurer, senior director of the Security Services Group of Kroll Inc., New York.

“When we see someone wearing a bulky coat on a hot day, what is under that coat? Approach them to see how they react. This is where the training of security officers comes in — to see how they react.”

Maurer emphasized that training needs to be consistent and repeated, asserting that even low-paid guards can be effective if they are well schooled.

“If the training is good, the officer is good,” he said. “Are they having a 15-to- 20-minute training session at the beginning of a shift and role playing, or are they just handed a piece of paper and told these are the new rules?”

He suggested having officers play different parts to practice how they would approach someone who was dressed unusually or who had left a package. Officers also need to be taught how to handle suspicious packages.

Malls increasingly are installing cameras to monitor entrances, and they can be effective if the people gazing at the monitors are on the lookout for the odd, strange or exotic, Maurer added.

Taking the technology a step further, casinos use digital systems that match faces of incoming guests against a database of card cheats and high rollers. But the technology is not yet useful for crime prevention because the system can be fooled by slight changes in appearance, such as sunglasses or a beard, Maurer noted. In addition, the private sector does not have a terrorist list — plus, of course, not every terrorist is even known.

Other camera systems are interactive, enabling a security officer in the monitoring room to speak to a suspicious visitor via a loudspeaker. These can be helpful in stopping crime and discouraging gangs and loitering, Erickson pointed out.

The Mills Corp. provides space for local police to operate a substation at each of its 13 malls, a strategy Kushner applauded.

“The police get better information, and that has been a real advantage,” said Kent Digby, executive vice president of management and marketing for Mills in Arlington, Va. “Any time there is a warning for a specific area, local enforcement and the FBI sit down with our people and we coordinate a total plan. It’s relatively unique.”

Security has become a bigger consideration in designing new shopping centers, noted Jeff Gunning, vice president and leader of the retail practice at RTKL, a top architectural firm that is designing the rebuilding of the Pentagon.

“One of the issues is working with ventilation systems so there may be a centralized cutoff point for all air-movement systems,” he noted. “If there is bioterrorism or a chemical threat, the entire system would be cut off so air was no longer pulled into the facility.”

Newer malls are built with fewer entrances. This not only enhances security, but it also forces shoppers to walk past more stores before exiting — and perhaps spend more, he pointed out.

But not everything can be planned for, Gunning noted. Those barriers can’t stop a parked tractor trailer loaded with explosives from leveling an area for blocks.

Still, Gunning observed that malls might still be safer than public areas or streets because there’s always someone watching.

“Anyone who knows anything about American shopping centers knows they come with their own security, local police are also involved, and there are a lot of cameras around,” he said.”