Mall owners consider changes to security after killing

Cameras might be added

patrols already increased

February 27, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg and Laura Barnhardt | Lisa Goldberg and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When Sandy Simmons heard about last weekend's fatal shooting at Towson Town Center, she felt chills.

The 57-year-old Perry Hall woman was held up at gunpoint almost four years ago in the same parking garage where a respected educator was killed Feb. 18 during a botched robbery.

"I hate that parking garage," said Simmons, who says she's still in physical therapy because of injuries sustained in the July 2001 attack. "They need more security people. They need cameras."

The addition of surveillance cameras, as it turns out, is among the security changes under consideration by the mall's new owners after the death of St. Paul's School teacher and dean William A. Bassett. But as officials from the company say they are taking another look at ways to protect workers and shoppers, they acknowledge that they are being watched by a jittery public.

"The point is that people see enhancements being made and feel comfortable with what we're doing," said David Levenberg, vice president of security and loss prevention for General Growth Properties, which inherited the mall as part of last year's purchase of Columbia-based Rouse Co. "We spent $12 1/2 billion on an acquisition. ... We'll do whatever we have to do."

Officials say they have already added security patrols and assigned an employee to watch the top levels of the garage where the 58-year-old educator was killed and where many mall employees park.

Two days after the shooting, two 18-year-old Baltimore County men were arrested and later charged with first-degree murder in connection with Bassett's death.

It was the second killing at the mall in the past three years. A teenager was fatally stabbed at the mall in 2002.

After the most recent attack, Baltimore County officials said the mall is safe. And nothing in a review of police agencies' statistics on crimes such as robbery and assault seems to set Towson Town Center apart from other large malls in the area.

But questions about security at the mall did not begin with Bassett's death. Simmons, for one, had written a letter detailing her concerns about mall safety to a local newspaper. The Sunday before Bassett's death, a man reported that he was punched, kicked and robbed of $300.

Shoppers at Hunt Valley's new Towne Centre had volunteered in recent interviews that one of the things they like about the new Main Street-style market are the open parking lots, and that they dislike the parking garage at Towson Town Center.

Reassuring shoppers

David H. Nevins, a Baltimore County-based marketing and public relations consultant, said he has no doubt that some Towson Town Center shoppers are concerned about returning to the mall. Nevins, who was hired by Westview Mall after a 49-year-old woman was fatally shot in front of her grandchildren in 1991 on a parking lot there, said Towson Town Center management needs to be very public and very visible with any changes.

"It can't be swept under the rug. Mall management can't say, `These guys were caught and people will forget,'" he said, adding: "The healing will begin once everything is out and open."

Karl Pfrommer, a 63-year-old retiree from Rodgers Forge, said the killing at the mall hits harder than other crimes in the news. The recent death of an inmate on a prison bus is not cause for as much alarm to people like him, he said, because "we don't plan to be on a prison bus."

"But we do go shopping. I think that's why there's heightened concern for this issue," he said.

Jessica Witkowski, a 27-year- old store clerk who works at Towson Town Center, also was shaken by the news of Bassett's killing. The Bel Air woman's purse was snatched in a mall parking garage three months ago.

She had noticed a man sitting in a pickup truck when she pulled into the Hecht's parking garage Nov. 13. She saw another man get out of the truck, just as he grabbed her bags.

"I started screaming and pulling them back," she said. "Then he punched me twice in the face."

The men sped off in the truck, a towel covering its license plate.

The walk from her car to the mall is still a daily challenge, she said. "I now know these kinds of things can happen."

Security experts say parking garages present security challenges.

William Brill is an Annapolis-based security consultant who testified on behalf of a woman who sued the former owners of the mall after she alleged she was sexually assaulted in a garage stairwell in 1993. (A jury eventually found in favor of the mall.) He said criminals choose places they believe are vulnerable and with which they are familiar.

"Perpetrators go through a decision-making process. Crime is not random," Brill said. But, given the number of people who pass through malls in a given year, "they're still relatively safe," he said. "Bad things can happen in nice places like malls."

The most recent police analysis of crime at the mall shows five commercial robberies, four street robberies and 25 assaults occurred there in 2003.

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