A pair of high-profile shootings at shopping malls this month, first in New Jersey and then in South Carolina, have sent shoppers and employees scrambling for safety.
The incidents have left security experts to answer a suddenly pressing question: What are malls doing to keep their millions of visitors safe?
In Columbia, South Carolina, 14 people were injured in a shooting at Columbiana Center Mall as shoppers browsed on Easter weekend. Customers at the American Dream mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey, faced similar panic April 7 after a 37-year-old man was shot multiple times at one of the country’s largest retail and entertainment complexes.
shopping malls present more security challenges than other public locations Because of their large open spaces and multiple interior doorways that lead to restaurants and shops – dead-ends with no exterior exits, say security experts.
At the American Dream mall, they showed up in search of exterior exits, and others found hiding places. Shoppers expressed confusion on social media. Unlike schools, where students participate in emergency drills for active shooters, fires and many other scenarios, shoppers in malls are not clued in on the best action to take. They are on their own.
Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and former chief of the Bergen County Police Department, stressed the importance of being prepared for a shooting or similar situation when visiting a mall, even though the chances of such an event remain very low.
If a shooting does happen, Higgins said, getting out of the building is the ideal first step. If that is not possible, they should try to hide behind or under something and remember to silence their cellphones.
“You have to be very cautious. But I want to caution people not to be so nervous that when they go out, they don’t enjoy life,” Higgins said. “Statistically, most people will not be involved in an incident like this, but if one does, it can be very devastating.”
Mall security and ‘run, hide, fight’
As police find faster and more efficient ways to respond to shooting incidents in public spaces, mall officials have ramped up their security systems, responses and training.
Dan Kennedy, senior vice president of US security operations at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the owners of Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, and 24 other US properties, said he sometimes stays up at night thinking of worst-case scenarios.
Kennedy, who worked in law enforcement for 27 years, including time with the FBI, said Unibail is an open book when it comes to security. A playbook for “every potential crisis situation” exists, and new ones are created as needed.
“Our goal is for people who visit our properties to see visible security and feel a sense of safety,” he said. “They may not know all the behind work, drills and training, but rest assured all of that is in place.”
Every year, all Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield properties undergo a security assessment, and twice a year they conduct active shooter and natural disaster training, Kennedy said. At least once a month, if not weekly, the general manager and security directors meet with police to review security plans.
“We focus on active shooter because of the rise of events in the country this last decade,” Kennedy said. “We work extremely close with the Paramus Police Department because safety is our No. 1 priority.”
Every tenant at the Paramus mall, for example, is given information on the Department of Homeland Security protocol for active shooter situations, called “run, hide, fight.”
The International Council of Shopping Centers also released a seven-minute video on the “run, hide, fight” guidelines that Kennedy has implemented for his tenants and new employees.
“Because we are the center of these types of incidents, the United States is better prepared than other countries because we have to [be],” said Higgins, who organized the response when a 20-year-old shooter fired several rounds near other shoppers before fatally shooting himself at Garden State Plaza in 2013. “But as far as we’ve gone, I still think we have some way to go.”
What can you do?
Each mall has a security plan in place for most emergencies, security experts said, but it is important for the visitors to plan for their own safety.
People need to be fully aware of their surroundings, Higgins said.
“If you hear what you believe to be shots, get yourself behind an item where preferably a bullet can’t go through, or worst-case scenario you can’t be seen,” he said.
Shoppers, especially parents with children, should have an emergency plan about where to meet if they become separated and whom to call when they are safe.
Contributing: Cady Stanton, USA TODAY
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism