By Donald W. Story
Donald W. Story is the vice president of Quest Security Consulting Services. A former chief of police and assistant professor of criminal justice, Story is a member of ICSC’s Security Committee and a former lecturer at the School for Professional Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bioterrorism, suitcase bombs, sleeper cells — a whole new set of words has been added to our lexicon. Before Sept. 11 NBC stood for National Broadcasting Company. Now we know that it refers to nuclear/biological/chemical threats. Pre-Sept. 11 only security managers were thinking the unthinkable. Now almost everyone is asking, “What if … ?” We were not the same people on Sept. 10 as we have since become. Following Sept. 11 we are aware of all types of potential dangers; we no longer feel secure.
Many businesses and institutions quickly began to re-examine their security systems and programs, and the shopping center industry was no exception. There suddenly was a need to reassure the public that malls remain safe places to visit.
If we did not realize it before, we know it now: The days of the kindly old guard in the blue blazer are long gone; he has been replaced by trained security officers. Since Sept. 11 we have been forced to look at our security operations with a new threat in mind.
In earlier days security in malls was provided by people whose primary responsibility was to be visible and answer questions from customers, such as the location of Sears or the nearest bathroom. Back then, the security image had been modified to a “soft” look, one in which security providers were adorned in blazers to make customers feel safe but not threatened. This was a time when security was considered primarily a customer service with the parallel benefit of diverting or deterring crime simply by its visible presence.
While that still holds true, mall management has needed to hire better-qualified, more-experienced personnel to deal with crime, unruly youths and crowd control; having a kindly security person to answer questions and open doors is no longer enough.
What is needed is a better-trained person who can respond appropriately when trouble occurs, as well as take steps to prevent problems. Specialists in mall security have emerged, security operations are more focused on protecting customers, employees and property, and better recruiting and hiring practices have been developed. These changes, though profound in the industry, have not been trumpeted by management, nor are they particularly visible to the public.
No amount of marketing to draw customers will be successful, however, if a mall is perceived to be unsafe. A survey commissioned by a major security company reveals that more than 50 percent of mall customers are concerned about their personal security when they shop, an issue that has affected their choice of shopping locations and times. And note this: The survey was conducted before Sept. 11, the day security perceptions changed for all of us.
A lot can be done to enhance security operations, including more-strategic patrolling, better training, improved communication with merchants, cooperative programs with law enforcement officials and increased use of security technology. Such improvements, however, do not necessarily translate to better customer perception. Malls with exceptional security operations and low crime rates are still plagued by a public belief that they are unsafe.
At one particular mall, I recall hearing such comments as, “I don’t like for my wife to shop here,” or “We don’t let our daughter work at the mall.” Interestingly, this mall has a well-trained, visible security staff and a very capable general manager who is knowledgeable and concerned about security issues. Its ratio of security officers to customers is much better than the ratio of the city’s police officers to residents, and its per capita crime rate is lower than that of the city. Why, then, this negative perception? Years before, the mall was overrun by teens who had been allowed to congregate. Although there was little by way of violent crime taking place, the general perception was that anything was possible.
So the mall boosted its security — the teens were monitored and their behavior improved, while the miscreants were banned. In a short time there was a genuine statistical improvement. But it took a couple more years to alter the perception of the public, which continued to regard the mall as a dangerous place. A combined management, security and marketing effort was required to change that.
Are malls safe? It depends on how one defines a safe place. For some it is a place where nothing harmful ever occurs; for others it is somewhere in which the risk of harm is minimal. By the first definition, no big place with thousands of people in it is ever safe, because some criminal activity will happen sooner or later. By the second definition, however, even such sites as the Super Bowl, the Olympics or Disney World can be very safe. The majority of shopping centers in America are very safe, too.
Statistics show that malls are usually safer than taverns, many apartment complexes, convenience stores, some parks and schools. There are several thousand domestic homicides in and around American homes each year, but nowhere near that number of killings inside malls. For some people it is far safer to be in a mall than in their own home or neighborhood. Though a few malls do become dangerous, they rarely stay that way for very long.
Among the techniques to consider is the selling of security. At one time mall management did not want to call attention to security programs for fear people would think there was a problem. Not anymore. People appreciate seeing what’s being done to keep them safe. So how do we sell security? We take our story to the people. We convince them that shopping at our mall is a safe experience.
Some malls have sent management staff to speak before such community organizations as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, who are always looking for speakers. Given people’s interest in feeling safe, a program describing the security operation at a mall can be informative and interesting to them. After all, nearly everyone is a mall customer. Similarly, these organizations can be invited to tour a mall and see how security operates, and the news media can be included, too.
Local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies could be brought in to showcase their agencies and activities in the mall, which is always a public draw. Area high school and college students can be invited to such events to learn about careers in law enforcement. Police can also help through mall-based child ID and bike safety programs.
Security staff could set up a liaison with local schools; in that role they can deal with any encroaching youth problems by speaking at gatherings of pupils and parents, as well as developing working relationships with high school student councils. Such efforts have paid off by improving the behavior of teen-age mall visitors.
The security departments of a number of malls have internship programs that allow college students majoring in criminal justice to work at the malls as part of their educational experience.
In times like these, when some are feeling vulnerable about their security, we must reassure them and use our creativity to sell security and to trumpet the fact that a mall is a safe environment. We cannot afford to do otherwise.
By Donald W. Story