As millions of Americans descend on the country’s shopping malls this week for the holiday shopping season, few may notice new security measures intended to prevent violence like the recent shooting at a mall in Paramus, N.J., that left a gunman dead and thousands of shoppers terrified.
For years, shopping centers have been the target of highly publicized attacks, including a shooting last December at a mall near Portland that left three people dead, including the gunman and the deadly four-day siege in September on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. A gunman at the Tacoma Mall shot six people, one critically in November 2005.
With multiple entrances, numerous parking levels and webs of corridors, the very design of a mall provides an assailant with endless opportunities for cover.
And public shootings are increasing at an alarming rate, according to research by J. Pete Blair, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.
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In 2001, researchers identified five shooting events that met criteria including their taking place in public places like malls or schools, and the involvement of strangers unknown to the victims. Between 2009 and 2012, the rate of those shootings tripled, to about 15 a year. So far, Blair has counted 13 such shootings in 2013.
But the strategies often employed by law-enforcement agencies to prevent attacks — like metal detectors, armed guards and bag screenings — may discourage consumers from heading to the mall, during a period when malls are losing shoppers (nearly a 7 percent drop from last year at this time, according to ShopperTrak), largely to online retailers.
So, mall operators are increasingly turning to subtler, less visible measures to keep a watchful eye on shoppers’ activities.
“There is that careful balance between making people feel safe and the infringement on civil liberties,” said Matthew Horace, chief security officer of FJC Security Services, a private security firm.
Mall operators offer emergency evacuation training sessions for staff members. They also have added to security staffs; installed shatterproof windows and bomb-resistant trash cans; and expanded closed-circuit television security systems.
Civil-liberties advocates worry that places that double as city centers could be tightly controlled by private businesses.
“Main Street has moved to the mall, but the First Amendment rights that accompanied the public spaces didn’t accompany them,” said Jeremy Nemeth, chairman of the department of planning and design at the University of Colorado, Denver. “A lot of mall security is predicated on limiting who uses the space and not just how you use it.”
Security systems and improvements are expensive. A closed-circuit television system can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and maintain, and much more if malls want to overhaul existing systems. Software and cameras can track bags left behind, count people entering and exiting, and detect when a person has entered a restricted area.
Salaries for additional security guards and police officers are also costly.
A 1-million-square-foot mall could spend $2 million a year on security, according to Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Mall operators pass those costs on to their tenants, which then pass them on to the shoppers.
The federal government provides materials and training to malls. The International Council of Shopping Centers spent $2 million developing a terrorism awareness course for security officers.
Six months before the shooting at Clackamas Town Center near Portland, local law-enforcement officials met with the mall’s security guards, training them for a situation much like the one that unfolded.
On the day of the attack, police officers arrived within minutes and knew their way around the mall.
“They were able to corner this guy because they knew the mall, they knew their training,” Kavanagh said. “The biggest part in the training is to know the layout.”
The organization is developing a course based on what it learned from debriefings after the Clackamas shooting.
A mall operator could place armed guards at every entrance and exit, but still the vast majority of the people walking the corridors would be shoppers with no formal training for how to survive a mass shooting.
Paradoxically, urban planners and some security experts see this as a potential asset: There is safety in numbers.
“The more public a space is, the more people who are invited in, the safer it is,” said Susan Silberberg, a lecturer in urban design and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and managing director of CivicMoxie, a planning and urban-design firm. “The safety isn’t lost from increased use. If a public space is used by a diversity of people, there are all kinds of eyes on the street.”