Mall security: Where do we stand?

On Wednesday afternoon, an apparently troubled young man opened fire upon customers and employees at the Westroads mall in Omaha, Nebraska. Eight customers and employees were dead, and another five injured before the gunman took his own life. The incident seemed earily similar to a shooting at a Salt Lake City mall almost a year earlier, which had ended with a law enforecement officer gunning down the shooter before more loss of life could occur.

SecurityInfoWatch.com caught up with Jon Lusher, the principal consultant and executive vice president of internal inspection and compliance for IPC International. IPC provides security services to shopping centers and malls in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, including security officers, technical services, as well as security training and consulting. Lusher shared his thoughts on the current state of mall security and how such incidents as the Westroads mall shootings affect retail security postures.

SIW: Can we prevent mall shootings like what happened in Omaha this week?

Lusher: I don't think it is possible to literally prevent such shootings as long as there are such disturbed individuals or terrorists committed to such attacks. Through a combination of skilled security personnel, law enforcement liaison and technology, some such incidents may be deterred and many more minimized.

A similar attack occurred in Salt Lake City in 2006. What can be learned from analyzing these incidents?

It is useful to know that the presence of law enforcement officers will continue to be an integral and important part of security at shopping centers. Further, these incidents validate the type of training now widespread in the industry, which deals with observing behaviors indicative of violent activity, as well as how to handle the incidents themselves to minimize injury, loss of life or property loss.

What is the current concern and thinking from mall and retail owners regarding this type of incident?

I know them to be very concerned, and yet confident that they are isolated incidents that cannot be absolutely defended against.

What about the possibility of metal detectors and X-rays?

We know that such techniques are technically possible, that the technologies exist. However, the industry feels, along with the vast majority of society, that we do not want to institute such draconian measures.

What should be the role of mall security officers in these situations, since they are almost always unarmed?

Their chief responsibility will always be to minimize harm to those in the mall. Thus, immediate inclusion of law enforcement and execution of plans in place to react to such occurrances are the first priority. Certainly, provision of first aid and crime scene maintenance would be included in these plans, as well as possible evacuations, reliance on emergency exits, etc.

Does technology like video surveillance even become a benefit here (for active prevention), considering such events are usually over within 5 minutes?

Video is unlikely to be a deterrent to this type of offender, but certainly may help security and law enforcement to manage and minimize harm. Secondarily, video may provide useful documentation and explanation of the incident.

Are store owners often trained in how to lock down their locations?

Most malls encourage this type of training, and assist stores in obtaining specific training. Further, security does work to coordinate the plans individual stores may have in place.

Does the fact that there is a security staff for the mall and individual security staffs for stores make it more of a challenge to create a unified security response and presence, especially since the staffs have historically been instructed to not rely on the other for communications and back-up?

It is perhaps more difficult if there is some hesitancy on the part of a store to coordinate [with mall security], but far from impossible. It takes some skill to coordinate the differences, but it is routinely accomplished.

In the area of mall and retail security, do you think we are getting better at sharing information among different private security staffs?

I do believe so. I would note that we have not found the information sharing from Federal authorities on terror-related issues to be much improved.

This incident occurred in the midst of a busy holiday shopping season (not unlike the Tacoma, Wash., mall shooting in 2005). Do you expect this incident to impact retail sales in shopping centers?

Generally, we see (anecdotally) that retail is not substantially decreased. We believe shoppers recognize these are isolated incidents that can and do occur in any venue, and are not deterred from living their lives, including shopping!

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