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Mall security in the spotlight in wake of shootings

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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.

"With school shooters, they're students usually. With hospital shootings, they're disgruntled with the care, or it might be a mercy killing," said Nesbitt, who began his security career in Baltimore in the 1970s working for a firm that provided services to stores, hospitals, companies and government agencies.

"With mall shooters, there doesn't seem to be one profile — maybe they want to commit suicide, or capture the news of the day. That's why it's very hard to prevent. It's less predictable."

A mall shooting also can fall under another category: that of workplace violence. Mark Catlin, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union, said this possibility is often overlooked by police and security when they are developing safety programs for shopping center employees.

"Often the focus is on what to do if an event happens," said Catlin, who coincidentally lives within walking distance of the Columbia mall. "What is less looked at is the work that can be done to prevent it."

Catlin said companies should have procedures in place for employees to report any threats to themselves — such as from a domestic problem — or to the store, perhaps from an angry customer.

"They should have a procedure in place so that if someone knows of a threat or some anger, there's a way to pass it on — to the store manager and to the mall," Catlin said. He also said companies need to address issues such as the store's design, making sure employees have somewhere to run to, and adequate staffing levels, which can increase safety.

Time will likely quell anxiety about The Mall in Columbia shooting, said one veteran of a previous mall shooting.

Lt. Robert Wurpes is now the public information officer of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office in Oregon, but just over a year ago, he was among the responders to a shooting at the Clackamas County Town Center.

The mall, owned by General Growth Properties, which also owns the Columbia center, was the site of what appeared to be a random act of violence on Dec. 11, 2012. A 22-year-old gunman fired into the crowd, killing two shoppers and wounding a third before killing himself. Police never found a connection to the victims or a motive.

"We never got that bright light," Wurpes said, that illuminated why the shooter chose to open fire in the mall. "He didn't talk to friends or on social media about it."

Wurpes said police stepped up their presence in the mall after the shooting, something welcomed by shoppers. Police "developed a much more open communication" with mall managers as well, conducting exercises such as one in which officers tracked an "active shooter" through the shopping center.

Eventually, Wurpes said, people realized that despite the terrible incident, the mall was still a safe place.

"I go back to the mall myself with my wife. I've taken my kids there," Wurpes said. "I don't think we can live our lives in fear."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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