A decade ago, those concerned with mall center security worried about terrorism. Today, the threat has shifted to random shooters.
After a failed terrorist plot in 2004 to blow up a mall in Columbus, Ohio, then-attorney general John Ashcroft met with retail executives to assure them that security was the government’s top priority. The discussion has now shifted to identifying and preventing random attacks, disarming shooters and knowing how to get customers and store employees to safety in the event of a threatening situation. The scenarios are no less frightening than a large-scale terrorist attack.
A rash of shootings on mall properties worldwide includes last year’s deadly siege of a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 67 people were killed. In recent months, there have been a slew of shootings at U.S. malls. A lawyer was killed in a carjacking outside The Mall at Short Hills in Short Hills, N.J., in December and, in November, a young man shot up Westfield Garden State Plaza, a super-regional mall in Paramus, N.J., frightening but not injuring shoppers, before taking his own life. A murder-suicide at The Mall in Columbia in Columbia, Md., on Jan. 25 left three dead and one person recovering from a gunshot wound. Had scores of retail workers and shoppers not stayed out of sight, the death toll could have been higher when the shooter, who was carrying crude explosive devices, fired off six to nine shotgun rounds inside and outside a Zumiez store at The Mall in Columbia.
“There’s not a significant amount that can be done to predict or intercept something before [the perpetrator] gets to the site of the mall,” said David Levenberg, president of Center Security Services, which works with shopping centers. “Most developers are involved in drills and practices and adding security — off-duty or on-duty police officers. Most incidents from start-to-finish don’t last more than two or three minutes. Most police departments have protocol where they’re not allowed to enter a building until they have backup. By the time the police get the call and enter, the situation is done.”
Nonetheless, there are steps malls and stores can take in the event of a shooting. Among these are:
• Larger malls that can afford to are hiring police and opening substations on their properties, Levenberg said. “Now people are armed in the shopping center who can respond more quickly. Shooters, once confronted by someone who is armed, typically stop shooting. Malls understand that the component of armed police officers is important in mitigating dangerous situations.”
• Video analytics, a system that’s programmed to intelligently pick out unusual behavior. “There’s the potential to use technology more to make mall management aware of some suspicious activity,” said Levenberg.
• Training. Many malls are joining efforts and training with local police departments. Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is the largest shopping center in the U.S. With 5 million square feet of space, it has a lot of ground to cover when it comes to security. With a 150-person security department, a Risk Assessment and Mitigation unit and a K-9 unit, the giant mall takes the well-being of its customers seriously. “You can look at the Mall of America as a big neighborhood with over 40 million people visiting per year,” said Doug Jenkins, director of security. “There are things that are normal and things that aren’t. When something seems out of place, we ask why it doesn’t make sense.”
The RAM unit, an undercover, plain-clothes team, interviews people who look unusual or are doing things that are out of the ordinary. “Their sole purpose is to look for suspicious people, vehicles and objects. They’ve had hundreds of hours of training and use a technique based on the FBI’s system of profiling,” said Jenkins.
The four dogs in the K-9 unit have changed breeds over the years. The mall started using malamutes, then switched to floppy-eared varieties such as spaniels and Labrador retrievers because they look softer and friendlier. Jenkins said the center does drills twice a month with all tenants, where stores go into lockdown mode. The drills take less than 10 minutes and occur at the beginning and end of the day. “We want to expose different shifts,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of smaller incidents with domestic disturbances that turned into fights and stores went into lockdown.”
“In most cases, mall owners are reasonable,” Levenberg said. “They try to take an educated approach to what they need in terms of security.”
Jenkins said Mall of America goes beyond the 40 hours of training required in the state of Minnesota. “We blow that out of the water and put [our staffers] through hundreds of hours of training,” he said. “When they’re signed off, I have no doubt that they can make it.”
• Using simple common sense. “Once an event occurs, what you can do to mitigate and reduce the amount of injury is lower the gates of a store and get all the people in the store to a locked back room,” said Levenberg. This is what happened at several stores during the Columbia shooting.
Despite the string of recent shootings, mall violence is down overall, according to Harvey W. Kushner, chairman of the criminal justice department at Long Island University. The estimated violent crime total in 2012 was 12.9 percent below the 2008 level, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports. “These incidents have affected America’s psyche,” he said. “It’s always been a money issue and there’s always been an issue about making malls a friendly place where people want to go. Malls should be safer and should have better trained people.” Many malls are joining efforts and training with local police departments, Kushner said.