Crime scares shoppers and malls BUYER BE WARY

July 24, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Area police, security consultants and mall managementSun Staff Writer

Before going to the mall these days, Josephine Szimanski makes a mental checklist. It goes something like this: Drive old Buick. Bring safety whistle. Carry less than $50 cash. Park near entrance. Keep alert.

They're preventive measures, she likes to say, against "the bad element" that stole her car battery in the parking lot of Golden Ring Mall two years ago.

"Before, I was indifferent," says Ms. Szimanski, a retired auditor who lives in Rosedale. "I didn't give these things much thought. Now I'm cautious. As I'm shopping, I look over my shoulder."

What she's likely to see is the same anxiety on other shoppers' faces.

Malls, where Americans once escaped their troubles in a festival-like frenzy of spending and snacking, have fallen prey to what engulfs the entire country: fear of crime.

That fear is changing consumers' shopping habits. Fewer are shopping alone or at night than did so several years ago, studies show. And while shopping, many express a feeling of unease.

Although security consultants believe the panic outweighs the risk, malls are left to deal with consumers' apprehension or face losing them. Years ago, malls were loathe to even admit they had security; now some market their safety brochures and surveillance systems the way they do their holiday displays.

"Malls are no longer the Camelots," says William Brill, an Annapolis security consultant who has worked with centers across the country. "They're becoming attractive targets for crime. In my portfolio, I've seen everything at malls from mass murders to rapes to shootings to stabbings."

The statistics, whether they're about mall crime or the public's reaction, are alarming.

* The average mall experiences nearly 105 criminal incidents annually, compared to roughly 20 in 1978, according to the 1993 National Shopping Center Security Report, a joint effort by the University of Florida, LPS (an international loss control firm) and Chain Store Age Executive (a retail trade publication).

* About 58 percent of the country's large malls are facing problems with firearms, 55 percent said they have a problem with gangs, and loitering youths were mentioned as a concern for nearly 90 percent, according to the report from 352 malls nationwide.

* Two in three women do not feel very safe when they shop today, according to a recent study in EDK Forecast, an executive newsletter that monitors female consumers' lifestyles.

More than 60 percent of the 500 women surveyed said they avoid shopping at night, while one in four avoids big malls altogether, the study found.

"The shop-till-you-drop generation is no longer crawling the malls," says Ethel Klein, publisher of the newsletter. "They don't want to drop."

Men's-room mugging

On a sunny May morning, a Baltimore retiree drove to Towson Town Center to make a bank deposit, browse around and have lunch -- a weekly tradition for the last five years. But during his first stop -- the men's room -- he was pushed toward a wall, robbed of cash and jewelry totaling almost $1,700 and sprayed in the face with a substance that infected his eyes.

"I thought, 'This is it,' " says the North Baltimore man who asked that his name not be used for safety reasons. "I didn't know if he was armed. I thought he might stab me, shoot me. He was young. I'm 79. What chance did I have?"

Although the robber fled and the retiree recovered -- getting some money back from his insurance company and $250 for the deductible from the mall, he says -- he's leery about returning to ++ any shopping center now.

"Once something like this happens, you imagine it happening again. It makes you cautious, edgy, scared," he says.

His fears may not be unfounded. While shoplifting is still the most prevalent mall crime, some other crimes appear to be on the rise. In Baltimore County, where malls proliferate, Eastpoint experienced 42 assaults in 1993, 10 more than the previous year. Towson Town had 75 vehicle thefts, compared to 47 in 1992. And there were 18 street robberies at Security Square Mall, five more than the year before, according to Baltimore County police.

But criminologist Lawrence Sherman cautions against reading too much into these numbers.

"If you take proper account of the people there, since most malls have the population of a small city, malls are generally among the safest places in any metropolitan area," says Mr. Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland College Park, who is a consultant to shopping centers, hotels and police departments.

Some shoppers, like Denise Williams, are aware they may be overreacting. "In some respects, I feel paranoid," says Ms. Williams, 43, who works as a housekeeper and lives in Pasadena. "Shopping is a fun thing. I like to go to the mall and wander around. I still do it, but more cautiously. I don't want to become a statistic."

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