Soft Targets: Recent Violence at Shopping Centers Prompts Property Managers to Carefully Evaluate Security

Article excerpt

Historic Trolley Square is a trendy mall in Salt Lake City known for its unique shops and restaurants enclosed in old trolley barns dating back to the 19th century. It's also known for a deadly shooting rampage that happened earlier this year.

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In February, a lone shooter armed with low-tech firearms--a pump-action shotgun and a .38-caliber revolver--shot nine people, killing five and wounding four. The terrifying incident ended when police killed the shooter.

While this was an isolated act of violence, the Trolley Square shootings underscore for shopping center owners and managers the absolute necessity of providing the best, state-of-the-art security for their patrons and store owners.

"Any good owner or manager is always looking for ways to improve security," said Charles Waldron, senior vice president of property management at Macerich, a real estate investment trust in Santa Monica, Calif.

Limiting factors

Neither the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) nor government agencies like the Bureau of Justice, the FBI or the Federal Trade Commission keep statistics on shopping center security breaches.

Patrick Kiernan, supervisory special agent for the Salt Lake City FBI, who worked with Salt Lake police on the Trolley Square shootings, said such instances haven't been commonplace in his 20 years with the FBI.

Still, recent events similar to the Trolley Square shootings have raised concerns. In April, a shooting spree broke out at the Ward Parkway Center in Kansas City, Mo., leaving three people dead. On Christmas Eve in 2006, a gunman killed a person at a mall in Boynton Beach, Fla., sending crowds of shoppers into a panic.

Additionally, anxiety about terrorism at shopping centers is growing. More than 60 terrorist attacks occurred against shopping centers in 21 countries between 1998 and 2005, according to information in a 2006 report titled Reducing Terrorism at Shopping Centers, by the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

None of those attacks occurred in the United States. But the September 11 terrorist attacks are a clear indicator the nation is not immune from terrorism, and neither are its shopping centers. In fact, the Justice Department's Joint Terrorism Task Force prevented a perpetrator from carrying out a plan to set off several grenades in garbage cans at CherryVale Shopping Mall in Rockford, Ill., in December 2006.

"Everyone needs to be concerned about terrorism," said Joe Marcello, executive vice president of national operations at IPC Corporation in Bannockburn, Ill. "We do our best not to remain stagnant. We're constantly changing our security efforts so people don't see patterns."

The United States is home to approximately 45,000 shopping centers, including about 1,200 enclosed centers, according to ICSC information. Because these centers lack barrier fencing, don't screen people as they arrive, and don't use bomb-sniffing dogs or X-ray machines, the Department of Homeland Security considers them soft targets.

And because shopping centers are perceived by the public as fun places to congregate, heavy-handed security measures are hardly the way to attract customers, said Scott Born, vice president of corporate relations for Valor Security Services in Marietta, Ga. Valor focuses exclusively on 160 shopping center clients.

"Absent the introduction of walls around malls and screening--and I don't think the public would tolerate that--the limitations of our security are defined by the environment we operate in," Born said. "The doors open in the morning and people can walk in. We don't go through their purses or backpacks."

Sizing up safety

To address the possibility of terrorist attacks on shopping centers, representatives from ICSC and the Department of Homeland Security met to discuss shopping center security soon after September 11. …

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