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Security vs. Tulips

In the past, when a mall or shopping center advertised a security system, owners feared shoppers would ask if security was an issue, and actually feel less — rather than more — secure. But in the days of Orange Alerts patrons want safety and security programs can actually be part of an effective brand strategy for a mall.

And for landlords concerned about costs, trial lawyer Corey Gordon offers a rule of thumb: “Spend at least as much on security as you do on tulips.” As a plaintiff's attorney, he told Independent Agent magazine, “I like nothing better than a case where the property owner hired landscape architects to make their property aesthetically pleasing but didn't spend one nickel on security consulting.” In fact, premises security lawsuits are among the fastest-growing segment of personal injury actions today.

Courts increasingly consider whether security shortfalls were a substantial factor in a crime, especially one involving personal injury. That problem would be magnified if, say, terrorists exploded a bomb. For mall owners and operators, the bottom line is that there is a direct correlation between the crime rate — reflected in loss experience — and the cost of insurance and other civil actions.

The costs to retailers are many and varied. The most direct and obvious is markedly higher insurance, reflecting lingering concerns after September 11. Another significant, if less quantifiable cost is lost business due to fearful shoppers staying away from malls.

The terrorist threats only heighten the existing criminal problems, which have devastated some malls. To wit: the Landover Mall in, Landover, Md. — once a regional shopping powerhouse — failed and closed in 2002 mainly because shoppers perceived it as unsafe.

Many malls experience serious crime at an escalating rate, including distraction theft, armed robbery, sexual assault, vehicle theft and hijacking, property theft from vehicles, vandalism, pick pocketing, and purse snatching. Some must deal daily with hordes of youths harassing patrons and even drug dealing.

Safety Zone

There are many steps mall owners and operators can take to increase safety. It's important that they focus on risks and vulnerabilities, rather than “threats,” which are theoretically infinite. They should also distinguish between safety and security, and develop strategies to reinforce both. For example, a robust fire prevention and evacuation plan helps in case of either malicious action or disaster.

Also, they must maintain openness, convenience and aesthetics, even while recognizing financial limits and CAM cost control. The potential benefits are real: lower losses, more protection from liability, better community relations and possibly lower insurance costs. The most valuable benefit, though, is safer, more secure and happier customers — who stay longer, spend more, and tell friends and family about their positive shopping experience.

Begin with a comprehensive risk and vulnerability assessment to determine that the next steps are based on history and fact, rather than whim. This is a structured process that identifies mall assets — people and property — to be protected, the level of protection needed and functional security requirements to provide that protection, and risk mitigation options. Mall and local crime and safety statistics are taken into account, as are such factors such as local population density, building design and setbacks, and the training and response times of local police.

The process itself is beneficial for all. It raises security/safety awareness among employees and managers, provides a way to intelligently allocate security spending and facilitates tracking of follow-up to determine return on investment and effectiveness of security programs. It also demonstrates due diligence in case of accident, incident and lawsuit, a key benefit for risk managers.

Essential Tactics

There are steps that mall owners/operators can take to improve security without major disruption or inordinate investment. Start by employing a visible, well-trained, uniformed security force on foot inside and on bicycles outside. Ideally, these security officers are mall employees, well-paid with benefits and a personal stake in the mall's success. Another tactic is to ask local police to include your turf on regular patrols — or establish a small sub-station on mall premises. Their very presence is a powerful deterrent to all but the most determined criminal or terrorist.

Physical security should be an integral part of the effort — develop and implement a “concentric security” approach based on layers of security. For example, ensure secure access control to HVAC equipment and gas mains. Carefully plan for blackouts and protect fuel tanks for emergency generators, which should be tested quarterly at minimum and given regular maintenance. Install or upgrade CCTV systems with “intelligent,” behavior-based technology, which alerts officers only when specific, user-defined events occur. Improve lighting throughout the facility, and place emergency call boxes where appropriate, paying particular attention to parking garages. Locate or re-locate ATMs and restrooms to open, high-traffic areas.

Be creative. Employ CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) principles to support natural surveillance and create defensible spaces and boundaries. For example, even an anti-ram wall protecting a glass mall façade from a vehicle attack can be made into “public art” with seating for patrons waiting for pickup.

Work with tenants to control timing and limit routes for cash pick-ups, vastly reducing opportunities for armored car robberies. Establish specific policies about loitering, trespassing, etc. and communicate them with clear signage at every entrance. Prohibit curbside parking, and conduct regular sweeps for unattended packages. Give floor plans to local police and fire departments, and work with them closely to develop and implement an emergency coordination plan and team in which all tenants participate. And even, when appropriate, engage local media to publicize security programs and policies.

Vice president and director of the security division of Urbitran Associates Inc., a Manhattan-based architecture, engineering and planning firm.

Mall operators should focus on real risks and vulnerability, rather than “threats,” which are theoretically infinite.

Avoid the fate of the Landover Mall in Landover, Md., which failed and closed in 2002 mainly because shoppers viewed it as unsafe. The 30-year-old, 1.3 million-square-foot mall was anchored by Hecht's, JCPenney Outlet and Sears.

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