From his glass-enclosed watch- tower in the middle of the crowded Mondawmin Mall parking lot, Special Officer Antonio Hamilton sweeps the blacktop with binoculars.
He radios his observations to the security dispatcher -- descriptions of who's leaving cars where they shouldn't, how many people are hovering around an automatic teller machine.
"We're here for safety as well as security, such as people parking in the fire lanes," he says.
In a tower on the mall roof, another security guard has a bird's eye view of several parking levels as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. The downtown skyline spikes the horizon.
Mondawmin, in Northwest Baltimore, is the first area shopping center to add observation posts to its security plan, although towers are slowly becoming more popular as deterrents to crime in malls elsewhere.
The Rouse Co., which operates Mondawmin, refuses to release crime statistics and is reluctant to discuss security measures. But Sonja D. Sanders, Mondawmin's sales and marketing manager, said the towers have helped reduce car theft, break-ins and vandalism on the lots of the 46-acre mall since their installation late last sum- mer.
Customers and merchants agree that the towers, and beefed-up security in general, have helped make the mall an attractive place to shop in an area where crime is a concern.
"I feel safer knowing he's up there [in the tower]," said Janice High, a parole officer who has worked at Mondawmin for 13 years in the offices of the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation. "A lot of cars have been stolen and broken into on the lots."
Blanche Pettiford, who lives in the neighborhood and drives to the mall frequently, said, "I feel safe here, but I never go out at night anymore."
Haywood Bolling, a retired man who said he shops at Mondawmin regularly, also feels safer. "It's good to have that guy there with all the people who are in and out of here," he said.
Sid Singer, owner of a Mondawmin jewelry store for the last nine years, is president of the Mondawmin Merchants Associa- tion.
"I've worked in a lot of places, Glen Burnie, Hunt Valley, Laurel and on Greenmount and Eastern Avenues, and this is the best. I'm as happy as I can be," he said.
Mr. Singer also praised William Smith, the retired city police major who is Mondawmin's security chief, for improving mall security.
City police agree that Mondawmin is a safe place to shop but say it's not immune to incidents inside or outside the shopping areas.
"Their security is pretty good. Our biggest problem up there is shoplifting," said Capt. Eugene Yeager, commander of the Western District, which assumed responsibility for Mondawmin in January.
Capt. Gerald Busnick, the Northwestern District commander whose officers covered the mall before January, noted that Mondawmin is a bus and Metro transportation hub.
A Motor Vehicle Administration building sits on its perimeter, and Frederick Douglass High School is across the street.
"You would expect incidents from the number of stranger-to-stranger contacts, given the number of people in and out, . . . but there are not as many serious incidents as one might think," Captain Busnick said.
He said other shopping centers with large, open parking lots should consider the towers, too.
When Mondawmin opened in 1956, the innovative double-level shopping center was a jewel in the Rouse Co.'s crown. But it almost became a commercial casualty of the city's changing demographics after Rouse relinquished management. Mondawmin went into a commercial decline that bottomed in 1973 when Sears, one of the original anchor stores, pulled out.
Rouse, which operates 78 shopping center nationwide, returned five years later and launched a revival that has made the mall -- with 112 stores and 3 million to 4 million visitors a year -- busy, profitable and comfortable, according to customers and management.
The Rouse Co. is "pro-active," Ms. Sanders said. "We look at what is happening with our neighbors, and city, county, state and national trends."
Every mall has had major incidents that have affected the comfort level of customers, she said, recalling two shootings at Mondawmin last year.
"Crime is everywhere and not just in the cities," she said. "
"Parking lots are an area where crimes occur, so we installed the towers to increase the comfort level of our customers and to decrease incidence of crime."
Rouse, which constantly experiments with different security measures, has deployed watch towers at one other location -- the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Mall near Philadelphia. But they were eventually removed, said Kathy Lickteig, a company spokes- woman.
Watch towers are making their presence felt elsewhere. "There is definitely a trend toward using elevated surveillance," said Keith J. Foxe, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "Security is an industry priority."
The council, which has 25,000 members worldwide, surveyed consumers and learned that they consider open parking lots and enclosed parking garages the most dangerous places in shopping centers, followed by rest- rooms.
In Southern California, the Homart Corp.'s Moreno Valley Mall put three observation towers on its huge parking lots when it opened in October, Michaela Marraffino, a mall spokeswoman, said. The Grand Boulevard Plaza Mall, in Chicago, has a watch tower on its main parking lot, which is surrounded by a security fence with two gated entrances, said Michelle Panovich of the Mid-American Real Estate Corp.
The mall is in a high-crime area, adjacent to an expressway and a public housing project, with a police headquarters building at one end.
"The mall is the safest place around," she said.