Before going to the mall these days, Josephine Szimanski makes a mental checklist. It goes something like this: Drive old Buick. Bring safety whistle. Carry less than $50 cash. Park near entrance. Keep alert.
They're preventive measures, she likes to say, against "the bad element" that stole her car battery in the parking lot of Golden Ring Mall two years ago.
"Before, I was indifferent," says Ms. Szimanski, a retired auditor who lives in Rosedale. "I didn't give these things much thought. Now I'm cautious. As I'm shopping, I look over my shoulder."
What she's likely to see is the same anxiety on other shoppers' faces.
Malls, where Americans once escaped their troubles in a festival-like frenzy of spending and snacking, have fallen prey to what engulfs the entire country: fear of crime.
That fear is changing consumers' shopping habits. Fewer are shopping alone or at night than did so several years ago, studies show. And while shopping, many express a feeling of unease.
Although security consultants believe the panic outweighs the risk, malls are left to deal with consumers' apprehension or face losing them. Years ago, malls were loathe to even admit they had security; now some market their safety brochures and surveillance systems the way they do their holiday displays.
"Malls are no longer the Camelots," says William Brill, an Annapolis security consultant who has worked with centers across the country. "They're becoming attractive targets for crime. In my portfolio, I've seen everything at malls from mass murders to rapes to shootings to stabbings."
The statistics, whether they're about mall crime or the public's reaction, are alarming.
* The average mall experiences nearly 105 criminal incidents annually, compared to roughly 20 in 1978, according to the 1993 National Shopping Center Security Report, a joint effort by the University of Florida, LPS (an international loss control firm) and Chain Store Age Executive (a retail trade publication).
* About 58 percent of the country's large malls are facing problems with firearms, 55 percent said they have a problem with gangs, and loitering youths were mentioned as a concern for nearly 90 percent, according to the report from 352 malls nationwide.
* Two in three women do not feel very safe when they shop today, according to a recent study in EDK Forecast, an executive newsletter that monitors female consumers' lifestyles.
More than 60 percent of the 500 women surveyed said they avoid shopping at night, while one in four avoids big malls altogether, the study found.
"The shop-till-you-drop generation is no longer crawling the malls," says Ethel Klein, publisher of the newsletter. "They don't want to drop."
On a sunny May morning, a Baltimore retiree drove to Towson Town Center to make a bank deposit, browse around and have lunch -- a weekly tradition for the last five years. But during his first stop -- the men's room -- he was pushed toward a wall, robbed of cash and jewelry totaling almost $1,700 and sprayed in the face with a substance that infected his eyes.
"I thought, 'This is it,' " says the North Baltimore man who asked that his name not be used for safety reasons. "I didn't know if he was armed. I thought he might stab me, shoot me. He was young. I'm 79. What chance did I have?"
Although the robber fled and the retiree recovered -- getting some money back from his insurance company and $250 for the deductible from the mall, he says -- he's leery about returning to ++ any shopping center now.
"Once something like this happens, you imagine it happening again. It makes you cautious, edgy, scared," he says.
His fears may not be unfounded. While shoplifting is still the most prevalent mall crime, some other crimes appear to be on the rise. In Baltimore County, where malls proliferate, Eastpoint experienced 42 assaults in 1993, 10 more than the previous year. Towson Town had 75 vehicle thefts, compared to 47 in 1992. And there were 18 street robberies at Security Square Mall, five more than the year before, according to Baltimore County police.
But criminologist Lawrence Sherman cautions against reading too much into these numbers.
"If you take proper account of the people there, since most malls have the population of a small city, malls are generally among the safest places in any metropolitan area," says Mr. Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland College Park, who is a consultant to shopping centers, hotels and police departments.
Some shoppers, like Denise Williams, are aware they may be overreacting. "In some respects, I feel paranoid," says Ms. Williams, 43, who works as a housekeeper and lives in Pasadena. "Shopping is a fun thing. I like to go to the mall and wander around. I still do it, but more cautiously. I don't want to become a statistic."
In April, a Baltimore County jury decided that on one occasion a local mall hadn't been providing adequate security for one shopper. It awarded the family of Jane Tyson $2.75 million in a wrongful-death suit stemming from her murder in the Westview Mall parking lot in June 1991.
Mrs. Tyson, 49, was shot to death in front of her two grandchildren during a robbery that netted $10. She had gone to buy a pair of shoes.
A wake-up call?
David H. Nevins, marketing consultant to Westview and other malls along the East Coast, declined to talk about the case because the mall may appeal. But he believes such lawsuits may have a dramatic effect on malls.
"It ought to be to property owners a wake-up call if they needed one . . . that the courts are saying you have the obligation to do what is reason able to provide a safe environment," he says. "That doesn't mean they can prevent all crime."
None of the 15 area malls contacted by The Sun would specifically discuss security plans. But generally speaking, malls employ guards to monitor indoor areas, use vans, jeeps or other vehicles for parking-lot patrols and may have closed-circuit TV for surveillance. For a large regional mall, annual security can cost between $600,000 and $1 million, says Mr. Brill.
"In the last three or four years, malls have started trying to walk that fine line between helping you feel safe without making you feel like you're in an armed camp," says Debra Hazel, senior editor of Chain Store Age Executive.
As for their strategies, the biggest change isn't technology but visibility.
"In the past, security had this perception of being evil rent-a-cops," says Aaron Coleman, director of security for Cranberry Mall in Westminster. "You were told to just stand out there and guard that gate. You were a warm body. But as we step into the '90s and crime increases, security is taking a more pro-active role. Not only are we there to deter crime but to assist mall patrons, help stranded motorists, perform first aid."
One of the most obvious examples of security becoming more obvious is the guard's clothing. While mall security guards in the past typically dressed in blazers and trousers -- looking more like hosts than cops -- today their clothing resembles a police uniform. In several areas, including Prince George's and Baltimore counties, off-duty police are allowed to moonlight as security guards in their police uniforms, and can carry their handguns.
Mondawmin installed two watch towers -- equipped with a closed-circuit camera and a guard with binoculars -- in its parking lot two years ago. Golden Ring organized a two-day safety expo last year featuring 20 different organizations. And Towson Town, sensitive to concern about its multi-story parking garage, recently increased its security staff by 30 percent and added emergency call boxes next to stairwells and elevators in the garage.
At Cranberry Mall, Mr. Coleman believes the most effective way to curb crime is to talk to youngsters. This spring the center began a junior security officer program where youngsters, ages 4 to 12, receive gift certificates when they help solve a mall crime. In the next month, the mall is planning to begin a walk-along program in which teens spend a shift with a security officer.
One of the most publicized safety measures has taken place at Tysons Corner Center in Virginia, where two years ago the mall began preparing quarterly reports for customers on crime statistics there, which are distributed near directories.
"We want to make sure that customers have accurate information so they can make their own judgments," says Debbie Withers, director of marketing for Tysons.
But while malls can preach safety and beef up security staffs, they still face a vexing security question: How to deal with teens? Although they're a lucrative market, they often intimidate adult shoppers.
In the Baltimore metro area, many malls have introduced codes of conduct for shoppers in recent years. While aimed at all visitors, it seems clear from the rules -- no loud music, no running, no foul language -- that they are targeted toward teens.
Such codes, though, don't make Ms. Williams feel any better. She has given up shopping on Friday or Saturday nights. "I know the malls will be packed with kids," says Ms. Williams, who has two daughters, ages 16 and 20. "I've been in malls when fights broke out between kids. I got away as quick as I could. It was a threatening situation."
But local malls have been more lenient than some centers across the country, which have imposed restrictions on when teens may visit and how many may congregate.
"It's a quandary," says Mark Schoifet, director of communications for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association based in New York. "Teens are good customers. They spend or influence their parents into spending $90 billion a year. They're the future customers. On the one hand you don't want to alienate this group. But malls are in the business of commerce. They should not be in the baby-sitting business."
Yet some security consultants believe malls still aren't doing enough to deter crime.
"Malls are not devoting the same time and attention to security as they do to other areas of their business," says Mr. Brill. "My clients can tell you the comparative square foot cost of one floor wax over another. They have consultants to tell them how to arrange the tulips." But, he says, security takes a back seat to other concerns.
Mr. Brill says the difficult job of keeping customers safe is compounded by the design of many complexes. Restrooms are often down long halls near exits. Vast expanses of parking lots and dark stairwells make a criminal's job easier. He also typically sees an increase in mall crime during the last quarter when mall business increases with the holidays.
(The accompanying chart shows mall crime during the first quarter of 1994, the most recent statistics available. January through March are generally considered quieter months for crime, police say.)
From his research, Mr. Brill says malls represent a dangerous challenge for criminals.
"The mall guys usually have a high capacity for risk," he says. "They strike quickly and suddenly because malls can be tough targets. They have security, lighting. But they think when you hit a mall you're hitting at Americana. It can be high status for criminals to do something at a mall."
Although malls say fear hasn't affected sales, industry analysts believe the proliferation of catalog shopping and home shopping networks makes it even more important for malls to address this issue.
"Right now, consumers still want to grab the tomatoes, try on the dress," says Ms. Klein. "They're afraid but hopeful. Another five years of this level of fear and violence, and people will be reluctant to venture out."
Precautions, preparation and awareness cut risk
Here are some safety tips to keep in mind while shopping:
* When possible, shop with a friend or relative.
* Be alert. Park under lights. Take note of where you're parked. And before leaving your car, look at who's around you.
* Listen to your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in a parking spot, move. If someone around you makes you uneasy, contact security.
* Do your homework. Find out about a mall's security. Ask the mall manager or security officer how frequently the parking lot is patrolled, how many guards are on duty and what crimes have been committed at the mall.
* When you're in a mall, look around for security officers. Do they seem attentive or distracted? Make a point of talking to them to see how knowledgeable they are.
* Don't leave children unattended, and don't let youngsters roam the mall without an adult.
* Keep an eye on your packages and pocketbook.
* Avoid closing time when fewer cars are in the parking lot and security may be leaving.
* Don't leave packages or electronic devices (radar detectors, portable CD players) visible in your car. Lock them in your trunk or put them in a less conspicuous part of your car.
* Stay in public places. Don't take shortcuts through isolated areas of the mall or parking lot.
* Take advantage of mall services. Many centers will have security guards escort you to your car.
* Look in your car before getting in it. Lock the door once you're inside.
* If you are the victim of a crime or witness something suspicious, report it to the police and mall security.