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Mall Security Back in Spotlight After Omaha

Last week's tragic shooting at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Neb., in which a disturbed teen killed eight people and wounded five others before turning the gun on himself, once again raised the question of whether mall security standards should be reevaluated. Further, the incident--the third mass shooting at a U.S. mall this year--shone a light on a key factor: coordination between mall security, in-store security and first responders.

In Omaha, Police Chief Thomas Warren told reporters that the shooter attracted the attention of mall security guards when he first entered the mall to case potential targets, returned to his car and then came back carrying something wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt. But after entering the mall the second time, he took an elevator to the third floor and went to the Von Maur department store where he started shooting before the guards could intervene.

The guards' behavior jibes with the standard playbook for mall security personnel, who are largely discouraged from intervening with guests, says Mark Springer, CPP, vice president of business development with Capital Asset Protection Inc., a Pittsburgh-based full-service security firm. A study published by the Department of Justice in early 2006, "An Assessment of the Preparedness of Large Retail Malls to Prevent and Respond to Terrorist Attack," included a survey of security directors in which 33.7 percent said the policy on handling suspicious behavior or persons was to report the behavior to a supervisor, 30.3 percent said it was to continue surveillance, 18 percent said it was to inform police and 11.2 percent said it was to approach (if they considered the incident non-threatening.)

The logic is that mall managers don't want security personnel harassing guests and potentially alienating customers. Instead, the standard practice is for guards to walk the floor to provide a visual reminder that they are there, and report unusual behavior to superiors or directly to police. Still, guards should be trained to act, Springer says, if they see something that really raises suspicions. Such action, even if it's just acknowledging and talking to the person, can end up deescalating situations.

"It makes an impression when someone looks you in the eyes," says Chuck Sennewald, CMC, CPP, CSC, an independent security management consultant with more than 30 years experience working with retailers. "If you have mischief in your mind, it could give you pause." Sennewald says that someone might come into a center, see security and be confronted and then decide to move on. "Who is to say the first time this shooter walked into this mall--when he first entered--had he by chance run into a well-groomed, interested officer, that could have discouraged him from using this property as a shooting gallery and gone on to another environment with less security."

One way to get guards to be more proactive, Springer suggests, is to have secret shoppers come to a property often and simulate scenarios that require guard interaction. "That keeps them on their toes," he says.

"Impressive" response time

In Omaha, police were on the scene within six minutes of getting the first 911 call from the mall, a response Springer called "impressive." Still, six minutes can be a lifetime in incidents like these--more than enough time for someone intent on killing to shoot dozens of rounds. That's exactly why mall security experts say that even if there are ways to improve mall security, there is no way of completely preventing a single person from wreaking havoc.

That doesn't mean that it's not essential for malls to set up security plans with local police to ensure that if something does happen police know the best way to get in and out of a property, can set up a perimeter and potentially contain incidents.

"When any incident occurs--fire, robbery or this tragic event--it is how the emergency response team reacts that is paramount," said Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention with the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation during a conference call last week. "In this case, security and law enforcement intervened to execute the established plan."

Indeed, cooperation between malls and first responders and development of emergency preparedness plans were the two biggest reasons cited by Department of Homeland Security advisors who had positive ratings of malls' plans in the Department of Justice report. (In all, 33 state advisors participated in the study and 24 of them rated the malls in their states as "very good", "good" or "fair" when it comes to preparedness.)

Retail Traffic reached out to the largest mall owners in the U.S., including Simon Property Group, General Growth Properties (which owns Westroads), Macerich Co., CBL & Associates Properties, Pennsylvania REIT, Westfield America, Forest City Enterprises, Taubman Center and Triple Five Group, owner of the Mall of America. All except Macerich declined to comment or did not return phone calls. Many cited corporate policies to not discuss security strategies publicly.

"I tell you, what happened in Omaha was just tragic and really troubling," says Ken Gillett, senior vice president of property management with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Macerich. "At each of our centers, we have a well-trained professional security staff supported by equipment and technology." But Gillett declined to discuss specific tactics.

Several mall and retail security consultants, however, did shed light on what are considered best practices in coordinating with officials. Springer says that best practices within the industry call for mall security teams to sit down with local officials to run table-top exercises a few times a year and full, functional simulation at least once annually. Further, most malls have in place phone-chains or more advanced systems that allow reverse-911 calls so that mall security can get information to each retailer within the property quickly.

"It's not enough to have a dusty plan up on a shelf and not have practiced it," says Jon Lusher, principal consultant with Bonnockburn, Ill.-based IPC International, one of the largest providers of mall security in the U.S.

In the case of Omaha, the mall management team did have a relationship with Omaha police, says Malachy Kavanagh, staff vice president of communications and external relations with ICSC . In fact, security efforts at the property are regularly augmented with off-duty police officers (a common practice within the industry), though there were none at the scene last Wednesday. Some malls even have police substations on their properties. Kavanagh says that most malls provide local law enforcement with building blueprints that show every entrance and exit to a property.

"It depends on where the property is, where the precinct is, if they have a need to have coverage in the area," says Greg Maloney, CEO of Atlanta-based Jones Lang LaSalle Retail. "We do it based on whether we believe the police presence is going to help and whether they need it." Maloney says that at least three of the 150 retail properties Jones Lang manages has a police substation. Jones Lang also has off duty police patrol at some of its malls.

Landlord/tenant relations

The Omaha shooter, however, exposed another key issue of coordination between security teams when he decided to step from the mall's common area into the Von Maur department store, where the shooting took place. Mall security teams are generally responsible for common areas and parking lots, but once someone passes a threshold into a store--especially a department store, which usually has its own security team--who is responsible for what gets hazy. Security professionals we talked to said there is no one standard for how these teams should interact.

"A wide range of relationships exist," Sennewald says. "In the best cases, mall and store security personnel have a common channel on radios through which they can talk to each other at all times. In the worst cases, there is no communication at all."

Sennewald says the problem stems from the fact that, on the whole, retail executives and mall executives have never sat down and hashed out best practices. "No one has really taken up the banner and given any significant, national leadership to what we should be doing," he says. Some retailers don't want mall security in their stores at all. Others like to have a uniformed presence standing by when they bust shoplifters.

Sennewald believes it will take initiative from both sides for that to happen. (Sennewald next year will release a new book co-authored with John Christman, CPP, the former vice president and director of security for Macy's West, Cardiff, CA, USA called Retail Crime; Security & Loss Prevention an Encyclopedic Reference).

For its part, the National Retail Tenants Association (NRTA), a 10-year old organization consisting of lease administrators and occupancy cost managers from 300 retailers, says mall security is a key issue for its membership and it has made little headway with landlords.

"As soon as we start to suggest more security, dollar signs go off," says Paul T. Kinney, NRTA executive director. "Obviously it would be a big cost to the retailer as well, but if the customers stop coming we're all out of business. The cost … should be spread out."

Training and turnover

One the biggest issues with mall security is the sorry state of security guards. The turnover rate within the industry is 100 percent a year. "You just know as a fact you're going to turn over all our officers during the course of a year," Springer says.

A big reason? Low pay.

"The fact is they are $8 to $11 an hour guards without guns," Kinney says. "Outside of wearing a uniform, they don't carry a lot of authority. … [Often] they are younger than the people they have to confront."

In fact, the state of mall security guards was addressed in the Department of Justice report. Letters with surveys were sent to security directors of 1,372 enclosed regional malls in the U.S. Many told researchers that parent organizations told them to not cooperate with the survey. Still, more than 133 directors eventually sent in responses. The study found that the median starting hourly rate for mall security officers was $8.50 and the average for all security staff was $9.50.

Officers receive a median of 40 hours training, with most of it done in-house or through a parent security company. Just under half said they have antiterrorism training, with the largest amount--45.8 percent--identifying "working with first responders" as their prime duty. Overall, 50 percent said they felt their antiterrorism training was "inadequate."

Also, 49 percent said that staff is instructed to be on the lookout for unusual behavior or dress of shoppers, including unusual/suspicious clothing or carrying large/suspicious packages.

But the turnover rate arguably undermines much of the training that the industry has striven to put in place. ICSC, for example, says that 2,000 of the 6,000 mall security guards have taken an anti-terrorism course it has developed with George Washington University. But if industry trends hold true, by next year none of those guards will still be working.

Shifting the paradigm

The biggest factor shaping mall security, however, stems from the overall paradigm. Currently, retail security is geared towards stopping shoplifting--which costs retailers $13 billion a year, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention. Moveover, the goal of mall security guards today is not to act as a mall's police force, says Springer, but to be mall "ambassadors." They're largely there to create a feeling of safety and to control unruly teens. The industry also views additional security measures, such as metal detectors, as untenable because they don't believe shoppers will tolerate them. "I don't think the malls want it and it's not because of the cost," Lusher says. "It's because shoppers don't want the mall to become a security state."

"We are very open-minded," Gillett adds. "But I can tell you that at Macerich [metal detectors and security checkpoints] are not tactics we are going to employ. What happened in Omaha was tragic, but people are resilient, they want to get back to a sense of normalcy and shopping centers help people get through their lives, especially during the holidays."

So until mall security guards are seen by the industry as a key line of defense or until retailers exert pressure on landlords to beef up efforts, most observers don't believe things will change.

Some wonder, however, if it's already too late. "Three shootings in one year is too many," Kinney says. "It's sad when your wife or daughter say they are afraid to go to the mall."

-- Staff Reports

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