What mall security can learn from 'Paul Blart Mall Cop' movie

When I sat down in the theater for a pre-screening of "Paul Blart Mall Cop" (from Columbia Pictures, opens Jan. 16, 2009) I was mentally preparing for a slapstick comedy, which is what the trailers advertise...you know, the sort of flick that always made me cringe and wonder whether I could come down with a slight case of bubonic plague rather than give in to my pre-teen son's begging campaign to be taken to the movies.

Plus, it's set in New Jersey, which right away makes it ripe to be the butt of all sorts of jokes. ("You're from Jersey? What exit?") And to add insult to injury, the movie wasn't even shot in New Jersey. It was actually filmed in Massachusetts, at the Burlington Mall in Burlington, and the South Shore Plaza in Braintree.

Instead of the anticipated dreadful movie, however, I found a film that is misrepresented by the trailers. The previews make it look goofy, but in fact, it works on a number of different levels. Good guys become bad guys, bad guys become good guys, and there is a reason for every scene in the movie. What may look at first like gratuitous physical comedy has a point, and the viewer gets the reference later on. The moviemakers throw in a takeoff on "Die Hard," with some rocking scenes of talented robbers who show off their abilities with bikes and skateboards. These bad guys take hostages and try to rob the bank in the mall, so they're not supposed to be sympathetic characters, but they look totally cool being evil.

Kevin James, the star of the TV show the "King of Queens," shows that he has depth and the ability to really act - not just look silly on a runaway Segway, which is his answer to the skateboarding stunts. James plays the movie's title character - your everyday underachieving, overweight loser - but one with a highly developed sense of right and wrong.

He lives with his mother and his daughter, his wife having run off once she shed her illegal status and obtained her green card. Mom and daughter are both worried about him, and they try to help him get a girlfriend by setting up a profile on an Internet dating service. (It's worth noting that the young actress Raini Rodriguez gives a terrific performance as the daughter.)

Alas, neither the dating service nor Paul's desire to become a New Jersey state police officer bring the desired results. The latter fails because of his hypoglycemia, which causes him to pass out just before he makes it to the finish line - a metaphor for his life. This failure -- his eighth washout for the troopers' academy -- his mother soothes with peanut butter and pie.

Yet he bravely carries on, hopping on his Segway to head out to the mall on Black Friday, where he drives his supervisor crazy with his dedication to keeping the shopping center secure. "Why can't you just punch in, shut up, and punch out, like the rest of us?" the supervisor wants to know.

Reality Check

But that's not the way Paul is made. His commitment to doing his job properly is what makes the movie more than just a slapstick routine. His first challenge is training a new security guard, who admits that he took the job because he doesn't have a GED, and mall security was the only employment he could find.

This is the point at which every security director's heart sinks. They KNOW this guy. They've hired him a dozen times before because no one else would work for the pay the company offers. They know Paul Blart, too. In the movie, he instructs his trainee how to take a stance and mime drawing a gun. In real life, he's the one who winds up getting the company mixed up in a use-of-force lawsuit.

Robert Woerner, CPP, a retired NYPD Crime Prevention unit lieutenant who currently works as a security consultant, points out that some mall security are wanna-be cops. "Those who have this feeling may be overzealous in carrying out their duties," he says. "But additional training and monitoring should dissuade most of this behavior."

In the movie, Blart finds himself in a tense situation in which he must take action. "Think! Think!" he encourages himself, and asks aloud what he's trained to do in these circumstances. "Nothing!" he moans, and flashes back to the sign over the door in the security office that reminds the guards to "Detect, Deter, Observe, Report."

A security director for a large national retailer who has participated in ongoing discussions with mall security chiefs offered his thoughts but asked to remain anonymous.

"Mall security are mainly concerned with public safety, meaning traffic in the lot, slips and falls, and mitigating violent activity by customers," the retail security director reported. "When it comes to the prevention of shoplifting and apprehending shoplifters, they want the retailer to bear that responsibility."

Unfortunately, this security director says mall security can sometimes be overeager.

"My experience has been, too often, that when the mall guards are called about a potential shoplifter, they stop people in the mall corridors and search them," the security director said. "If I am hearing the mall security leaders correctly, their officers should not stop potential shoplifters whom they did not see steal and when they have no idea where the goods are concealed. They instruct their security personnel to respond once the detention has occurred by the retailer, and then only to keep the peace until law enforcement arrives. I want them to follow their own policies," the retailer adds. "I want my store associates to alert mall security so they let other retailers know there is a potential risk. If a big department store with floorwalkers catches the shoplifters, then the system has worked the way it is supposed to."

The Real World Meets the Shopping Mall

According to Woerner, just having mall security guards around can be helpful to stores. "The presence of a uniform - a warm body - will to some degree deter crime," he says. "It should give shoppers a sense of security and well being. They won't necessarily look at the presence of guards as a bad thing, e.g., that the mall is a high crime location," he quickly pointed out. But, he adds, "In high crime areas, having a sworn police officer assigned to a mall would be a help."

Our anonymous retail security director agreed with Woerner, but even went a bit further.

"In light of increasing violence in shopping malls, having an armed and properly trained police presence in the mall is necessary nowadays," the security chief says. "I wouldn't want armed security. Police officers and police sub-stations in the mall are great, especially in tough, inner-city malls. We have had some of our best theft apprehensions in those malls because the police are there and take care of it immediately. I'd also like to see bomb and narcotic trained dogs with police officers in malls," the retail security director added. "That sounds kind of hard core, but times are changing."

Woerner says that the best way to ensure cooperation between stores and mall security is to recognize that retail is, at its core, a people business. Consider the human factor, he advises: "Treat mall security guards as people, and have them understand your needs."

In the end, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" offers a way to open a dialog between mall security and retailers about how to best work together. And because repetition paves the way for the best learning experiences, get set for another mall cop movie. "Observe and Report," which debuts in March at the SXSW Film Fest; it's a dark comedy starring Seth Rogen as "a deluded, self-important head of mall security who squares off in a turf war against the local cops." Stay tuned.

A 6-Point Prescription for Mall Security

The security director of a nationwide retail chain also offered the company's formula for successful mall security operations when interacting with stores and store loss prevention (LP) operations:

1) Respond for a walk-through when called by associates of a store. This will establish a uniformed deterrent presence when a suspected individual or a group is present. DO NOT apprehend.

2) Respond when a shoplifting has occurred ONLY to take note of what was stolen and what the shoplifter looks like so other stores can be alerted or the bad guys can be tracked to other stores.

3) No matter how much the store associates "guarantee" that the merchandise is on the suspect, never, NEVER stop and question or search or accuse a suspect, regardless of how much the associates plead. The associates are violating company policy by trying to get the person apprehended.

4) Communicate profusely with stores on what the risks are to the stores and training on what mall security can offer the stores -- then do it.

5) Patrol the lot and common areas to take care of public safety, control crowds, intervene in fights, deal with the potential for violence, and, in the near future, respond to terrorist attacks.

6) Post pictures of convicted shoplifters with community service messages about shoplifting on ad boards.

About the author: Liz Martinez is a retail security expert and the author of the book "The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention." She can be contacted through her LinkedIn.com webpage or via e-mail at retailsecurity@gmail.com.