By Janet Morrissey
NEW YORK — Going to a shopping mall has always been dangerous to a person’s wallet. But if people believe the latest talk, it may soon a pose a threat to their physical safety.
Speculation has been growing in recent weeks that a high-profile mall in a major U.S. market may be the next terrorism target. And some experts aren’t so sure they’re prepared.
«They (terrorists) are looking for a big bang. A big splash in the media to get the most out of the attack,» said Dr. Harvey Kushner, a professor at the Department of Criminal Justice at Long Island University who has a 38-year history working as a terrorism consultant for such organizations as the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.N., and U.S. Customs Service.
Kushner speculates terrorists are likely looking at softer targets, such as malls, high-rise apartment buildings, schools and rock concert venues, because security has been beefed up considerably at more obvious sites, such as government buildings and airports. Of the softer targets, he puts high-profile malls in major cities at the top.
Attacking a mall would have a more «chilling» and «psychological» impact on Americans than the other soft targets, he said.
Accessibility is key, he added. At the Super Bowl, for instance, security staff checked backpacks, packages, and other items, making it difficult for a terrorist to bring in explosive devices or other dangerous materials. Not so at malls, where there are no such restrictions, he said.
Kushner describes security at malls as «low quality, low paid» personnel who would not be capable of detecting or handling a terrorist threat – similar to airport screening staff prior to the overhaul that took place following Sept. 11.
For Kushner, it’s just a matter of time.
«Every day that a mall opens it dodges a bullet,» he said.
But others aren’t convinced.
«There is no credible evidence that malls or shopping centers will be targets,» said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, which is the industry’s trade association.
Still, Kavanagh and others agree malls could be potential targets. And Kavanagh noted that many mall owners have taken steps to beef up security and draw up contingency plans in the wake of Sept. 11.
Many mall owners have erected concrete barricades or planters to prevent cars or trucks from plowing through the entrance to a mall, he said. Some have boosted communication with the police department, with some even setting up satellite police stations in the malls, he noted.
Many have also brought in tougher restrictions when it comes to parking and allowing access to rooftops, loading docks and corridors, he said.
Kavanagh believes that as Homeland Security alerts rise, security strategies at malls will also increase, especially at larger, higher-profile malls.
Kushner said it’s not enough.
His biggest beef is the quality of security staff, which he compares to airport screeners prior to Sept. 11. He said better-trained and better-paid security staff must be brought in. «They have to be motivated for advancement and their jobs meaningful so that they don’t get there and fall asleep,» he said. He also believes security personnel should be equipped with hand-held metal detectors so they could perform spot checks on shoppers.
Kushner also suggests fewer entrances be permitted at malls, and recommends large garbage receptacles be replaced with smaller, transparent ones that will make it more difficult to conceal a bomb.
He also believes small bomb-sniffing dogs could be used around the malls. «It doesn’t have to be a German shepherd or Doberman pinscher. It could be a beagle,» he said.
Trying Not To Breed Fear
Both Kushner and Kavanagh agreed that some mall owners are reluctant to beef up security too much out of fear it will frighten shoppers. Kavanagh said there’s a fine line between stepping up security and frightening people. He believes more steps — such as the bomb-sniffing dogs — will be added as Homeland Security alerts rise.
«You can’t live in a state of fear,» concurred Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairman of retail leasing company Garrick-Aug Worldwide Ltd. She believes the concerns to date have been overblown.
Most major mall owners contacted said they had beefed up security at their malls, although the amount correlated with the size and location of the mall.
Kushner said he believes malls facing the biggest potential risk are those in high-profile cities, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the New York/New Jersey corridor.
Taubman Centers Inc., which owns high-end malls in 13 states, has made its security staff undergo additional training since Sept. 11, according to spokesman Karen MacDonald. It has also tightened access to delivery zones, loading docks and other sensitive areas. She said other steps have also been taken, but declined to elaborate for security reasons.
MacDonald doesn’t rule out bringing in bomb-sniffing dogs at certain malls if security alerts warrant it.
Glimcher Realty Trust Chief Financial Officer William Cornely said his company has upgraded its video monitoring equipment, tightened up security around its parking lots and delivery areas, and remains willing to add even more security if customers ask for it. He said many of his malls are in middle-markets, which are seen as less likely targets. Still, he said he takes the potential threat seriously.
Some mall owners were extremely sensitive on the subject. David Contis, chief operating officer at Macerich Co., was tightlipped, saying only that «we’re on a task force that works closely with Homeland Security.» He declined to elaborate further or offer information on how much the company has beefed up security at its malls.
Another major mall owner, who did not wish to be named, said he’s in a «no-win» situation. If he speaks out about all the steps taken to boost security, it could scare off shoppers, he said. If he plays down the risk, he could appear insensitive or ignorant to the risk, he said. «It’s a very sensitive subject,» he said.
He believes bringing in bomb-sniffing dogs or installing metal detectors at this stage would be overkill. «Unless or until the local authorities say it’s necessary, we don’t feel it’s appropriate to take it to that level,» he said. «We don’t want to alarm people.»
Homeland Security changed its terrorism alert to orange status – the second highest level – following President Bush’s speech Monday.
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By Janet Morrissey