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Protecting Malls from a Terrorist Threat

SHOPPING MALLS have always been vulnerable to traditional crimes due to the lack of controls at entrances. The shooting of two people at an upstate New York shopping center earlier this year, though not a terrorist incident, again raised questions about whether mall security could respond adequately to a terrorist attack or suicide bomber.

The suspect in the incident at the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, New York, started firing inside a Best Buy store before proceeding into the mall corridor. The man was able to fire 60 rounds from the semiautomatic rifle before running out of ammunition. A store employee subdued him.

During the follow-up investigation, police discovered a videotape at the suspect's home showing the man and two friends producing and detonating pipe bombs—evidence that the incident could have been much worse. (The man has been charged with violating federal explosives laws.)

Mall owners and operators should recognize that these open venues present inviting targets, and they should make it a priority to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop emergency response plans, says Lt. Roger Kelly of the Fairfax County Police Department's criminal intelligence division in Virginia.

Locally, he has seen evidence that they are doing just that. His unit has been called in to do vulnerability assessments at Tyson's Corner Center, the largest mall in the Washington, D.C., region and the 10th largest shopping complex in the country.

An assessment can often help to determine low-cost solutions. For example, Kelly recommends guarding public access to ventilation systems and employee areas. He also recommends surveillance techniques inside malls and in parking lots that can make security guards and CCTV cameras more visible to shoppers, which can serve as a deterrent.

With regard to emergency response, Kelly suggests that large or multiple-floor malls designate a floor captain on each level or wing of a complex. Each designee can serve as a point-of-contact during emergency situations. And that person can help to distribute timely information and to organize training among stores, Kelly says.

There is a limit to what malls, which must remain open and welcoming places for customers, can do in terms of access control. Individuals are never going to be inspected at malls the way they are at airports. Therefore, the challenge of stopping suicide bombers and explosives detonations comes down to security guard diligence, says Jade Hirt, national manager for staff development with IPC International Corporation.

It is also important that front-line security officers be informed about any terror alerts. “It does no good for us to have the information in Chicago when the front-line people are the people who need to know it because they're the ones who need to look for it,” says Hirt.

Training with targeted information about the new threat is also key, says Hirt. IPC International, which provides security guards and consulting services at more than 400 shopping centers in the United States, has developed a counterterrorism PowerPoint presentation on suicide bombers. This presentation is shown to employees at each field location.

Among the topics covered are lessons learned in Israel on blast patterns of explosives, behavior profiles of terrorists, packaging techniques of bombs, and how a bomber can be recruited.

As for more elaborate security improvements, those run into bottom-line resistance. Like all businesses, retail operations have limited dollars. Every mall will be asking itself, “Do you invest $100,000 in security or do you use it to promote an upcoming sale?” Hirt says.

But mall owners also appreciate that the risk is real and that ignoring it might cost more in the long run. In the end, says Kelly, “I think there's a great effort by corporate America to come up with ways to address the cost to prepare and prevent versus what it's going to cost post-event and all the liability issues that follow.”

—By Eric Grasser, assistant editor