NEW YORK (AP) — Some malls around the world have been scrambling to add security guards to look for suspicious people following a deadly attack this month on a shopping center in Nairobi. But for other malls, it's been business as usual.
The mixed reaction isn't unusual in an industry whose security efforts vary from unarmed guards in most shopping centers in the United States to metal detectors and bag searches in places like Israel to main entrances that resemble airport security lines in India.
The disparity offers a glimpse of why any moves to increase mall security in countries that have less strict procedures aren't likely to last: The industry continues to struggle with how to keep shoppers safe without scaring them away.
“No one wants, when you go shopping, to be strip-searched, to be interviewed in a room by a security guard,” said Simon Bennett, director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester in England. “That might be acceptable in aviation, but it is not in commercial retail.”
Security concerns come after militants from the Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab took control of the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi, holding off Kenya security forces for four days. The government says at least 67 people were killed in the assault, including 61 civilians and six security forces.
In the aftermath of the attack, security was tight at the Junction Mall in Nairobi. Two of three entry gates were locked. Cars were searched more carefully than usual, with guards looking in glove compartments. Two armed soldiers were stationed inside the mall, and mall security guards who search patrons with metal detectors at entry points said the soldiers had been deployed after the Westgate attack.
In the United States, the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group of shopping centers representing about one-third of retail space globally, said the U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security is reaching out to corporate security at all malls.
At the same time, the group said some malls in the United States and South Africa are beefing up private security personnel, while others are bringing in more off-duty police officers.
Mall of America, the biggest U.S. mall, added extra uniformed security officers and stepped up other measures, but officials at the Bloomington, Minn.-based mall declined to elaborate.
“We will ... remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations,” said Dan Jasper, a mall spokesman.
The Bloomington Police Department has a substation in Mall of America, according to the property's website.
In general, U.S. malls focus on reacting to a shooting more than preventing one. Malls depend on private security personnel, most of whom don't carry guns, though they do work with local police. And while they're trained to look for suspicious behavior and report that to authorities, they're discouraged from intervening.
“Shoppers at this point perhaps don't have an appetite for extraordinary measures,” Kenneth Hamilton, executive vice president of IPC International, the largest provider of shopping center security of malls in the United States.
Indeed, heightened security hasn't been welcomed in U.S. malls. The International Council of Shopping Centers spent $2 million to develop a terrorism training program after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. But surveys conducted by the group following the attacks indicated that people don't want to be subjected to metal detectors and bag searches at malls.
U.S. malls have made changes to their security strategies following attacks. A shooting on Dec. 5, 2007, at Omaha's Westroads Mall, for instance, was an impetus for malls to change how they deal with shooters themselves. After a 19-year-old man shot and killed eight people before taking his own life, malls began working with Homeland Security on a plan to have the first responders from the police department enter the building to stop the shooter and free those who are trapped rather than wait for backup.
Many mall operators say they now have evacuation drills once or twice a year that focus on lockdown situations. A growing number of malls also use cameras that scan license plates in parking lots. And many malls use technology that enables them to share three-dimensional virtual blueprints of their layout with law enforcement.
The reaction to attacks can be more muted in other parts of the world. In China and Hong Kong, for instance, malls are operating normally following the Nairobi attack. They are typically monitored by closed-circuit cameras and with unarmed private security guards stationed throughout.
In Australia, Tobias Feakin, senior analyst for national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that given the relatively low risk of terrorism in Australia, it's unlikely malls there will make major security changes.
Michael Green, chief executive of the British Council of Shopping Centers, a mall trade group, said they don't want to make malls like prisons.
“We have to make them welcoming,” he said.
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Omaha mall officials discuss security
A sampling of comments from Omaha-area mall and shopping center officials:
• Westroads Mall
Westroads Mall owner General Growth Properties Inc., which also owns Oak View Mall, doesn't discuss specifics of its safety programs “in order to avoid compromising our efforts,” said David Keating, a company spokesman.
“The safety and security of our shoppers, retailers and employees are always a top priority, not just when tragedies occur,” he said in an email.
Jim Sadler, the Westroads' senior general manager, said, “We just don't publicize our security playbook, but our thoughts and prayers are with all the mall folks” in Kenya.
• Oak View Mall
Ted Harris, the general manger of Oak View Mall, said, “We do take measures to ensure the best safety to protect our tenants and the public.” Like others, the mall steps up its security presence during the holidays.
“Security tends to follow the flow of the shopping pattern,” Harris said. Security patrols monitor stores, parking lots and entrances and exits, he said.
• Midtown Crossing
“We have 24-hour security at Midtown Crossing,” said Molly Skold, spokeswoman for Midtown Crossing. “Our security folks are in off-duty cars, on Segways and on foot.”
Condominium owners use security access cards to enter the garages and buildings.
“We have cameras, security personnel,” Skold said. “There are all sort of things we utilize.”
• Shadow Lake Towne Center and Village Pointe
Alicia Peters, the general manager of Village Pointe, said the two malls employ security personnel to monitor the whole property — not just the stores, but also parking lots and entrances and exits. Both shopping centers are managed by RED Development.
With increased holiday traffic approaching, the two shopping centers plan to step up security, with additional hours and coverage built into security staff members' holiday schedules.
Management also keeps up to date on the latest security measures and equipment and ways to be proactive, Peters said.“This is something we've always done.”
• Nebraska Furniture Mart
Nebraska Furniture Mart, which announced last spring that it would arm its security guards with handguns, declined to comment Friday on whether that security measure was in place. Though not a mall, the Furniture Mart's Omaha campus covers more than 77 acres.
“We don't provide specifics on what we do and don't do, just as a football team doesn't reveal its offensive strategy,” said Robert Batt, the company's executive vice president.
“There is nothing more important” than the security of customers and employees, Batt said. “We have contingency plans for every possible situation. Our people are ever-vigilant.”
Security guards patrol and watch surveillance cameras at the Furniture Mart's showrooms, which are visited by several million people each year.
“Thirty years ago, it was just me,” Batt said. “Now, we have staff and building safety and security committees and trained safety and security staff.”
• Metro Crossing in Council Bluffs
“Individual stores are responsible for their own security,” said Patrick Rooney, regional property manager at Kimco Realty, which manages the open-air shopping center.
“Plus we have two city streets dissecting the property, so we have municipal police coverage.”
• Crossroads Mall
“We do have security here, but we don't get into details,” said Steve Buckley, director of retail properties at the Lerner Co., the mall's property manager.
“I can tell you this is a safe place. The tenants feel safe, and our customers feel safe,” he said. “Security is not just personnel, it's also lighting. Our parking lot and garage is very well-lit.”
--- Janice Podsada