Increased security at mall issues warning

March 09, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

All things being relative, Towson Town Center is bracing for a crime wave. Already, the first chilling ripples are creeping along the suburban shoreline. The mall was hit by three garage and parking lot robberies - in the first 10 months of 1996. In some city neighborhoods, this would be known as a very peaceful evening.

Still, the future continues to arrive in Baltimore County. At Towson Town, mall officials and county police are adding 10 security cameras at entrances and exits, plus a new police and security substation in a spot where shoppers can see it and feel they've been given a comforting hug, and potential lawbreakers can say, "Oops. We've come to the wrong place."

There was a time when such electronic measures might have provoked a backlash. There are some who still cringe at the recollection of George Orwell's "1984" warnings of Big Brother creeping into our lives and cameras probing every corner of what used to be considered our privacy.

Those days are gone. We've conceded there are dangerous predators in our midst, and we're turning things over to those with uniforms and badges until our nerves get a whole lot better, which is probably not going to occur in this lifetime.

But the curious part isn't just Towson Town's beefed-up security, so much as its high-profile media display: lots of TV coverage of the new defenses, plus plenty of cooperative newspaper display.

In a time when a couple of stores at Owings Mills Town Center were hit by holdups on two straight days and Hunt Valley's upset over potential crime arriving on the Metro, this could have been Towson Town officials' way of saying they were heading off any troubles before they could arrive. But it might also be seen as an implicit admission that they're as vulnerable as any other mall.

Thus, a question: Where is the line drawn between telling people it's safe to shop there, and issuing an unexpected warning that many people never felt they needed until the instant they heard about these new security efforts?

Outside Friendly's Ice Cream last week, an elderly couple sat on a bench and seemed perplexed by all the talk of new anti-crime measures.

"I don't get it," the woman said.

"Yeah," the man laughed, "we come to the mall because it's safer than staying in our house."

At a shoe store, a veteran salesman said, "Look, we get a lot of kids with 50 different body parts that are pierced. They bother some people, I suppose. But they're like the '60s kids who might have looked weird but were pretty gentle. And they're about the most menacing thing here."

A security officer adds a caveat: "Nah," he says, "there's no crime here. Except a lot of car thefts."

"Why?" he is asked.

"Cause this is where all the good cars are," he laughs.

It sounds like the great bank robber Willie Sutton, who was asked why he kept robbing banks. Because that's where they keep the money, Sutton said.

At Towson Town in the first 10 months of last year, 24 cars were reported stolen. This is one higher than a year earlier. The security guard's little laugh - "this is where all the good cars are" - reflects both the mall's strength and its undercurrent of anxiety.

It's got the spiffiest cross section of stores in the area, and thus the highest economic profile of shoppers, driving the nicest cars. Store owners want to keep it that way and, while the new security measures may be a deterrent, they're also a reminder to everyone that suburbia continues to face gnawing concerns about crime.

In the first 10 months of last year, 368 shoplifting cases were reported at Towson Town. Security Square had 458. East Point, 352. Golden Ring, 205. White Marsh, 179. Westview, 186. Owings Mills, 168.

Any time you have a bunch of stores in one place, and thousands of shoppers, a certain amount of crime is inevitable. But the numbers aren't getting smaller. Security Square had 38 assaults last year, almost double 1995. East Point's 41 assaults were nearly double the previous year. Towson Town had 48 reported thefts from autos, up half a dozen over '95.

The malls have traditionally been a refuge from the troubles of open city streets.

They've all had security officers for years, of course, but now the security measures have been upped to match people's anxieties, or block them before they can get started.

There's not the slightest sense of menace at Towson Town, for example. Parents with toddlers worry more about their children getting lost in a crowd than running into a mugger. The elderly find the food area convivial for long midday snacks with friends. Nobody's looking over a shoulder.

But now everybody's heard about these new security cameras. Now everybody sees the new police substation. The clear signal is: We're protecting you. The question is: When did we begin imagining we needed protection when we entered a suburban mall?

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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