Expert Q&A: Jonathan Lusher on Security at America's Malls

'Tis the season for shopping. Malls in the U.S. are experiencing their busiest times, just one week after a mall shooting and hostage taking in Tacoma, Wash. SecurityInfoWatch.com caught up with Jonathan Lusher, a mall security expert with IPC International to talk about securing malls today. Lusher brings a background from police work (7 years) and as a security director for thoroughbred horse racing facilities ("surprisingly similar" to malls, he says) and as a security auditor consultant for 16 years with IPC International (online at www.ipcinternational.com).

As the Senior Vice President, Consulting/ Inspectional Services at IPC, he works to secure America's malls, and his company is notable for having provided guard services at the Tacoma mall where last week's shooting occurred. He is a past chair of the International CPTED Association and is designated a Certified CPTED Practitioner-Advanced. He is also a member of the International Society of Crime Prevention Practitioners and the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS). Jon caught up with us on Monday via phone from his home office in the Texas hill country.

What are we seeing today as the top concerns for mall security directors?

Interestingly enough, the crime situation is one that, if it's not already being put under control at malls, it's being strongly addressed. We are seeing very intense security precautions and numbers have declined. One thing to note is that crime at malls and shopping centers is relevant to the local community, but often it has become much lower than the crime rates in the local community because of the security precautions being taken.

Second of concern, and it's not really a crime issue as much as a customer service issue, is the presence of youth at today's malls. The concern is how you encourage young people to come to the mall and shop there, but at the same time from being unruly or boisterous, basically just being teenagers. This has a lot to do with community relations. Often times there is a cultural disconnect. If elderly customers are the main base, they don't appreciate teens in groups running around, even though those groups aren't usually presenting an issue in terms of crime. Sometimes there is even a racial element to this. We sometimes see elderly, white patrons concerned about groups of black youths. But we have to recognize that those groups aren't there to create crime. They are there to shop. We know that they are the moms and dads of tomorrow; they're the successful single professionals of tomorrow. And we know that their spending habits today will translate into increased, larger spending habits in the future when these teens grow up and have substantial income.

Also, since 9/11, there is a strong focus on terrorism. We have always used the all-hazards approach to responding to emergencies, but certainly since 9/11 terrorism is of greater concern at shopping centers. We look at the potential of all things that can happen. We worry about suicide bombers, especially since our malls are designed to be open facilities. Today we want to be trained and equipped for those consequences.

So our top concerns for today are crime, youth problems and terrorism.

What is the situation of possible terrorism at our nation's malls?

Years ago there was a book called "The Seizing of Yankee Green Mall" (editor's note: in paperback, this book was called Hidden Charges, and is authored by Ridley Pearson) that was about taking a major shopping center hostage. It's still a concern of all governments across the world. We often forget, but the IRA targeted Manchester's shopping centers, and the Israelis have been repeatedly targeted.

One of the differences between us and the Israelis is that their society has learned to live with intense security and intense surveillance. They are using metal detectors and very controlled entrances with limited access points at their malls. They search everybody. But even more important is to detect terrorists before they can even get to the secured areas. They focus on keeping the bombers out, and they have succeeded because there have been instances where the bombers have had to explode themselves outside the facilities or even across the street because they were identified. They are looking for common denominators and are using behavioral profiling extensively.

We have adopted behavioral profiling based on their models, but of course, it's hard to tell how good you've done if you don't see those incidents.

To prevent terrorism at malls, the sharing of information is important and has to improve dramatically. I think that the strength of the connection for the local mall security director is that local knowledge. As they'd say in Chicago, "You gotta know a guy." Security directors need to know and work closely with the local and state authorities. There are also bulletins, like a new one created jointly by the CIA and the FBI about pre-operational terrorism indicators, and while it doesn't directly address mall terrorism, these things give information that security directors should be looking at.

Are you aware of any malls using metal detectors or X-ray systems today?

I'm not aware of any, though there are some mall directors who have the technology waiting in the wings, whether that's in a storage closet to be deployed or a standing order for the technology. But our society really isn't prepared for that yet. We feel about terrorism the way that Londoners felt after the Underground bombings, and that is that terrorists aren't going to keep Londoners out of the Underground. One day after the Tacoma shootings, the mall reopened and people were back in strong numbers and the stores were reopened.

The recent incident at the Tacoma, Washington, mall with the shootings and hostage-taking is on everyone's mind. What can be learned?

I think we know that these incidents are virtually impossible to predict. The often don't send signals or warnings. The best to hope for is that you can respond as soon as these events start unfolding. I was reading more about this incident this morning, and this young man had felonies on his record, but none of these were violent. No earlier behavior indicated that he might try this kind of thing. I know that all law enforcement and the customers there were quite satisfied by the way the situation was handled.

What's happening in terms of raising the bar for mall security guards?

Our guards are being trained on behavioral analysis. I can't say that they're getting years of training like a psychologist would, but we have a series of training tools constructed for anti-terrorism situations. We have an expert on staff to teach our guards who has background in both and psychology and worked in Naval intelligence, and who has taught counter-terrorism analysis.

It's 2005 and video surveillance is booming. How are surveillance camera systems being used at malls?

We're seeing a general increase in the installation of video surveillance solutions; certainly you could call this a major increase in the number of systems installed in shopping centers. We are also seeing the use of leading-edge surveillance technologies that focus on monitoring rather than just recording. Smart video technologies are just jumping by leaps and bounds by the minute. We are also working toward the use of remote monitoring, whether it's for late night camera monitoring when the malls are closed, or full-time monitoring for the smaller centers where budgets don't allow an on-staff monitoring.

While malls are not super high-tech environments, we are starting to use these smart video systems to spot when a package has been left or when a door has been opened at a time when it should have been closed.

How are surveillance systems being used in parking lots?

I think these video systems are quite applicable to shopping center parking lots. One concern that we used them for was fraudulent reporting of motor vehicle theft. We had a shopping center with a high rate of car thefts reported, and the facility was near the Mexican border and we knew that cars were disappearing over the border. And because it was a real threat, people were claiming that their cars were stolen from the parking lots when they actually weren't. We put in a strong surveillance system and the cameras watched lots to prevent thieves, but what we also devised was a way to report the car stolen and to give a very detailed report. So John Jones would come to us to report that the car was stolen and would see the details he had to give about the car and where it was parked and how we recorded the lots and often times he would turn around and leave. Other times they would give a description and where it was parked and we could verify whether the car had actually been there. It was a misdemeanor to falsely report a stolen car to the police, but to report it to insurance was a felony. This system help prevent those fraudulent reports and we saw a drop of over 80 percent in cars reported stolen from the parking lot.

We just passed the Friday after Thanksgiving, when Americans rush stores for "door-buster specials". What are tactics for controlling the chaos?

We just make sure everyone takes a deep breath, and we staff up for the holidays. We get the local police involved to control the crowds or provide security inside the malls, and then we just have to stand back and open the doors. Fortunately people have become more educated about these holiday shopping rushes.

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