Boosting Security Measures at Malls Not 'Practical'

Despite Sunday's shooting at Tacoma Mall, shoppers are unlikely to pass through metal detectors or get frisked at mall entrances anytime soon, industry consultants say.

Boosting safety measures to such levels at shopping malls simply isn't practical, they say, because it would hamper business and restrict freedom in one of America's most ubiquitous gathering spots. Besides, they point out, an estimated 190 million people pass through 1,200 enclosed malls and 44,000 shopping centers in the United States every month without incident.

Shootings at malls "are an anomaly," said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "People will not shop where they do not feel safe. Malls invest a great deal of time and money in security training. They constantly have to strive to be perfect, but perfection is, of course, unattainable."

Sunday's shooting rampage at Tacoma Mall, coming just days before the start of the holiday shopping crush, highlighted the vulnerability of America's shopping centers. Police said Dominick Sergio Maldonado, 20, of Tacoma opened fire inside the mall, randomly injuring six people one critically and held four people hostage in a Sam Goody music shop.

He released the hostages and surrendered about four hours later, police said.

It's unclear whether Tacoma Mall will beef up security. Officials at Simon Property Group, which owns the mall as well as Seattle's Northgate Mall, released a statement Monday saying they have been "diligent in creating a safe, secure and comfortable shopping environment for our customers, and merchants." Officials declined to cite specific measures, saying the information would compromise security.

Nationwide, mall security focuses on prevention, not reaction, said Brent C. Brown, a former police officer who is chairman and CEO of Chelsey Brown International, a security-management company based in Atlanta. The company provides security services to office towers, malls and other businesses in 28 states.

Security guards are trained to scan people for odd behavior, such as wearing a big puffy coat in warm weather, Brown said. They look for suspicious body language, such as fidgeting, or suspicious bags left unattended.

On average, individual malls spend $500,000 to $2 million a year on security, he said. That includes extensive camera surveillance systems where personnel watch for questionable activity inside and outside the mall, he said.

Malls also develop relationships with local police departments. They provide blueprints of floor plans so that, in an emergency, officers are familiar with the building setup and can assist in evacuation, Brown added.

According to Simon Property Group, Tacoma Mall houses a police substation and works with Tacoma police officers who "routinely patrol the property." That includes vehicle patrols, foot patrols and security escorts, according to the company's statement.

Kavanagh of the International Council of Shopping Centers said, "The elevation of sophistication [in security operations] varies from mall to mall."

At the SuperMall in Auburn, for example, security measures include video surveillance, 24-hour patrols, training for security officers and a police substation. But Dennis Nicholson, the mall's general manager, said such precautions cannot necessarily stop something like Sunday's rampage.

"We can't prevent that individual from doing that," Nicholson said. "In this day and age in particular, I think that the American public needs to be ever so more aware of their surroundings. It doesn't matter if they're in a shopping mall or a sports arena."

While Sunday's shooting was on the minds of many, it didn't deter them from visiting Tacoma Mall on Monday.

Karolina Lang of Lakewood had gone to the mall Sunday to make an exchange when news of the shooting sent her home. She returned Monday to try again but admitted she wasn't going to hang around longer than necessary.

"I'll get out of the mall quite quickly," she said.

Tiffany Landis said the shooting was on her mind Monday when she met friends at the mall's food court, but she wasn't expecting another shooting.

"I think it's probably one of the safest places to go right now," she said.

But it was too soon to return to the mall for Daine Bambico, who works at Auntie Anne's pretzels and at the Sam Goody store where the suspect holed up with four hostages.

Bambico didn't work at either job Sunday. Nonetheless, he got 15 calls from friends and family worried that he was in the music store.

He didn't think anyone should be in the mall Monday.

"Business as usual is good," he said. "But the workers need the day off. I can't describe how it feels."

Despite security measures at U.S. malls, there's always the possibility that somewhere in the crowd is a disgruntled employee, a jilted lover or a mental patient on the edge.

"If someone is determined, I don't know that you can prevent it," said Capt. Mark Couey, who heads homeland security for the Washington State Patrol.

But Couey noted that violence at malls is extremely rare.

"I don't think it calls for people to be paranoid or install metal detectors," Couey said. "I don't think the public would stand for either."

Information from Seattle Times staff reporters Emily Heffter, Nicole Brodeur and The Associated Press is included in this report.


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