Mall security in the spotlight in wake of shootings

Keeping patrons, employees safe without turning malls into armed encampments

  • A shooter opened fire at 11:15 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, at the Columbia Mall. Three people are confirmed dead by the Howard County Police, who believe on of the dead is the shooter.
A shooter opened fire at 11:15 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014,… (@DanAngryAsian, Baltimore…)
January 27, 2014|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

The security apparatus at a shopping center like The Mall in Columbia is designed to be as sophisticated as it is unobtrusive — off-hours training and drills to prepare employees for shootings and other calamities, surveillance cameras that can capture in real time suspicious persons or behavior.

And yet, Darion Marcus Aguilar managed to arrive on Saturday morning at the Columbia mall with a shotgun in a bag and spend about an hour in the food court area before heading to the skate shop Zumiez where he would emerge from a dressing room to kill two employees and then himself.

"I don't think there's anything that could have prevented this from a security perspective," said Eric Oddo, a senior policy analyst with the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security.

"A mall has perhaps more challenges than any other institutions," Oddo said. "Unlike, for example, an airport, which has more controlled entrances, the only way a mall can work is if it is free-flowing."

Security experts say shopping centers face a dilemma when it comes to protecting customers and employees — people want to be safe while they're at the mall, but anything too overt, from metal detectors at entrances to armed police at every turn, would vastly change the leisurely appeal of the mall experience.

"That just wouldn't be realistic given the shopping culture that we have in the U.S.," said Joseph LaRocca, a security consultant who previously headed loss prevention efforts of the National Retail Federation and the Walt Disney Co.'s retail division. "People going to the food court and the movies, or shopping — the thought of having to stand in security lines … would send even more people to online retailers."

As a result, LaRocca said, many malls have instead installed sophisticated camera systems and trained employees on how to react to emergencies. Their corridors and parking lots are patrolled by private security guards, uniformed and plainclothes, and off-duty police officers.

The Mall in Columbia's management was reluctant to speak specifically about its security systems or any changes in the aftermath of the shootings. The mall reopened Monday with additional security measures.

"You will see an increased security presence by uniformed police officers from the Police Department, working in close coordination" with mall security, Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon told mall employees Monday.

"We want you to feel safe, we want your employees to feel safe," he said, "and we want our patrons here to feel safe."

McMahon praised the work of the mall's security staff as "absolutely phenomenal," saying surveillance cameras helped police determine when Aguilar arrived and how long he was at the mall before the killings.

Officials noted that the "active shooter" drills that police run for employees during the overnight hours when the mall is closed paid off this weekend when they were confronted with the real thing. For about five years now, most recently in April of last year, police have worked with the mall to provide this kind of guidance.

As shootings in malls, movie theaters and other public venues seem to occur with ever greater frequency, such drills are becoming standard practice, said security experts.

LaRocca points to the 2007 mass shooting at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Neb., where a gunman killed eight people and then himself, as the turning point.

"There was a program put together by retailers, police and Homeland Security, and rolled out nationwide," he said of guidelines on how to handle active shooter incidents. "The retailers started to practice these drills. You never want to be the center that has the shooting, but if it happens, you want to be prepared."

The nation's largest shopping center, the Mall of America in Minnesota, has drawn criticism for a "behavior profiling program" based on Israeli airport techniques. Personnel scan the crowds, looking for suspicious, out-of-the-ordinary behavior that warrants further observation or questioning by security guards.

Reporters at the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio found that sometimes, information on shoppers deemed suspicious by mall security was forwarded to federal agencies, which then investigated them further.

At The Mall in Columbia, security cameras apparently picked up Aguilar's entrance and movements for about an hour at the mall, but it did not appear that anything he did prior to the 11:15 a.m. shootings raised suspicions.

LaRocca said that simply hanging around a food court is entirely normal mall behavior — people can be waiting for rides or for a movie to start.

William Nesbitt, president of Security Management Services International, said one problem with preventing or handling mall shooters is that they don't fit a single profile.

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