Caroline Kennell, 8, is petting "Bruno," a new patrol… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
A K-9 security team will be dispatched to patrol five Baltimore-area malls to beef up security at the properties, mall owner General Growth Properties announced Tuesday as the holiday shopping season gets under way.
The team of two German shepherds will monitor activity at Harborplace & The Gallery, Towson Town Center, White Marsh Mall, The Mall in Columbia and Mondawmin Mall.
While General Growth officials said no single crime or incident prompted the use of the K-9 unit, the new security plan comes after several high-profile crimes at Mondawmin this summer, including a robbery in which a gunman escaped with $100,000 worth of watches and jewelry from Elite Gold & Diamond.
Several area malls have enhanced security features in recent years by improving lighting and adding security cameras after crimes. A teacher was fatally shot in the parking lot of Towson Town Center in 2005, and Arundel Mills in Hanover has boosted security after several robberies.
"K-9 teams are very visible and a good way to send a safety message to retailers and shoppers," said Katie Essing, general manager at The Mall in Columbia.
K-9 security is a growing trend in the retail industry as mall operators have become increasingly concerned about crime. This is the first time General Growth has deployed K-9s in the Baltimore area, but the company has already installed K-9 units in Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Many malls are turning to K-9 units because of declining respect for law enforcement and other authority figures among some young people, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the trade group International Council of Shopping Centers. A canine provides an officer with more backup.
"Years ago you told somebody to leave and they would," Kavanagh said. "Today they may want to fight or argue. It's a badge of honor to get arrested. A dog barks and shows his teeth, and everybody quiets down."
The added precaution may also be good for business. Retail consultant Burt Flickinger III said using K-9s is a smart move for General Growth as consumers become more concerned about crime, not just in malls but all retail centers, particularly in parking lots.
General Growth "is looking at security as an investment rather than a cost to reassure shoppers and reinforce the safety at their centers," Flickinger said. "Reinforcing the safety will drive consumer demand."
The time the dogs spend at each Baltimore-area mall will be divided equally. The dogs, to be guided by a uniformed security officer provided by a private company, will patrol both the interior and exterior of each property. The officer will be required to have law enforcement or military training with canine experience, according to General Growth.
The dogs receive hundreds of hours of training, and shoppers will be encouraged to pet and approach the canines. Trading cards with pictures of the dogs will be given out to kids, Essing said.
Mall officials didn't want to reveal what the dogs would be specifically trained to detect, but said that in general they can detect sensitive odors such as explosives or drugs. Only a small number of malls use K-9 units but some retail experts expect the trend to continue. "It's in its infancy, but based on its success, it will probably grow," Kavanagh said.
The use of K-9s was the main topic at a security convention held by the shopping center trade group this summer, Kavanagh added. The strategy hasn't become widespread yet because many mall owners want to make sure the dogs don't give the perception that the property has a crime problem and scare shoppers away, retail experts said.
A survey by the trade group found that 69 percent of shoppers said they would feel more secure in a mall with a K-9 unit on patrol. Kavanagh said Americans have become accustomed to accepting "heightened levels of security" since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other crimes.
General Growth officials said most shoppers have been receptive to the K-9 dogs in their malls.
"I was a little skeptical myself at how it would be received in the shopping center environment," said Steve Crumrine, director of corporate security and safety for General Growth. "If you watch the interaction of the dogs with children, it is very good. And within a few weeks you saw retailers with water bowls and little treats for the dogs."