Columbia mall shootings have Bel Air shoppers wary but unworried

Columbia mall shootings have Bel Air shoppers wary but unworried
Harford Mall in Bel Air "absolutely" has a security plan, its general manager says. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF, The Aegis)

Shoppers in Bel Air Monday afternoon said they have no plans to change their shopping habits following Saturday's shootings inside The Mall at Columbia in Howard County that left three people dead.

Several people interviewed around the Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, a major gathering place in Bel Air's retail district that includes three shopping centers and Harford County's only enclosed mall, said they are always prepared for a violent situation and thinks the shootings in Columbia could happen anywhere.


Theresa Brinkerhoff said she is not worried about being at nearby Harford Mall, but a larger place like Towson Town Center "might be a different story."

The Baldwin resident said a friend from Catonsville was worried Saturday that Brinkerhoff might be in Columbia.

"We like to go to Columbia mall and she called to see if I was there," Brinkerhoff said.

Fortunately, she was not.

"I am always aware of my surroundings and I tell my kids to do that," she explained about her approach to shopping safety. "I watch what's going on around me all the time."

Brinkerhoff said she feels safer in Harford County and a smaller town like Bel Air but is also worried about fallout from the Columbia shootings.

"I think people are getting ideas," she said.

Nevertheless, she added, "You can't not go out, you can't not live. You can't just stay in your house and be sheltered," she noted.

Dorian Cast, of Edgewood, said some people might be worried after the Columbia shootings, but he has no problems shopping anywhere.

"Things always happen. There's always incidents," Cast said.

Gordon Scharpf, of Bel Air, said it is easy to get desensitized to all the shootings that keep happening.

"You start to become immune to it, but you pay more attention to your surroundings," he said.

Scharpf isn't worried about going to shopping centers, including Harford Mall.

"I feel safe. What can you do? You can't live in a cocoon the rest of your life," he said.


He also sounded grim about the reality of violence.

"I am not shocked by what happens anymore," he said.

Visible security

Across Route 1, plenty of security was visible at Harford Mall around noon Monday.

Despite the fairly light lunchtime foot traffic inside the mall, a security guard passed through the mall's center court and a security vehicle was zipping around outside the building.

Harford Mall General Manager Lauri Altman declined to discuss existing security procedures for Harford County's largest shopping center, nor would she say whether they had been beefed up during the 48 hours following Saturday's Columbia shootings.

Altman confirmed, however, that the mall "absolutely" has a safety plan in place that includes all the tenants, although it is up to tenants to have individual plans for their employees.

Altman read from a statement sent by CBL & Associates Properties Inc., of Chattanooga, Tenn., which she said was prepared for the company's shopping centers nationwide. Harford Mall and its annex, that includes Best Buy and PetSmart, are the only properties in Maryland owned by CBL & Associates.

"We work with all government officials" to provide security, which for Harford Mall means the Bel Air Police Department, Altman said. The mall also provides its own 24-hour security, she said.

Altman would not permit a reporter to interview shoppers on mall property or take photos inside the building.

She also declined to comment about the Columbia shootings and whether they might affect public perception of enclosed malls' security in general.

"It would be inappropriate for me to comment or offer opinions," Altman said.

Opened 41 years ago, Harford Mall has long been a destination for shopping, eating out or hanging out among Harford County residents of all ages. According to management, the building has 505,000 square feet of leasable space and 75 stores and eateries.

Bel Air Police publicized two crimes at the mall in the last four months. On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 6, a man robbed the Liberty Bank branch inside the mall at gunpoint. A Dundalk man was later arrested and charged in connection with that and several other bank robberies in Harford and Baltimore counties.

Earlier this month, police said a man also took money from a cash drawer at Spencer's Gifts inside the mall. No one was injured in either incident.

What to do

Robert Weinhold Jr., principal of Bel Air-based Fallston Group LLC, a corporate crisis management firm, said he does not know the protocol at Harford Mall but noted it is important for all organizations to have proper training that includes live simulations of an emergency.

"One piece of advice I would give Harford Mall is to really make sure that they have done the proper safety and security assessments and that they train effectively with local law enforcement," Weinhold, whose firm's services include developing security plans, said.

A former Baltimore City police officer and onetime public affairs director for the city police department, Weinhold said mall management should be communicating with patrons about security standards to give customers a sense of confidence. It should also provide visible security teams and random patrols.

"Any institution wants to communicate the fact that patrons will be concerned about everything ranging from active shooter situations to theft," he said.

Weinhold said he would even encourage store employees and owners to conduct drills for scenarios that include an active shooter.

If a customer is ever unfortunate enough to be in a scenario like Columbia's, Weinhold recommends fleeing, hiding or fighting.

Patrons should flee or escape the situation as fast as possible, he said. If escape is not possible, they should hide. As a last resort, they should do everything they can to fight the assailant.

"All organizations, including malls, should be thoroughly evaluating their safety and security standards. From that point, malls should have the proper policies and protocols in place, to include an emergency action plan and/or crisis plan as well as a crisis communications plan that everyone understands," Weinhold said.

"Once plans are carefully crafted with trained professionals, organizations must train against the plan to test its ability to be executed. Training must include live simulations," he added. "Malls should also have strong relationships with local law enforcement so response tactics are both timely and effective."