The Wrong Kind of Crowd

by Nate Hunter

From flash mobs to smash-and-grabs, how to keep malls safe.


Flash mobs, melees, disorderly conduct and thefts can easily cause loss, injuries and disruptions to customers’ experiences in malls. Flash robs like the one that took place in a Pennsylvania Sears, in which a large number of people descend on a store, create commotion and steal whatever they can, or events like the violent breakout in the Mall of America just after Christmas are prevalent in retail outlets across the country. With social media and the immediacy of mobile communications making it easy for criminals and disorderly youth to coordinate impromptu gatherings, retailers must be on their guard and prepared to react to the eruption of a sudden event. As is so often the case, getting back to the basics is the key to preventing and effectively responding to these kinds of loss-causing or even violent outbreaks.

The Trouble with Malls

The first key to success is understanding the space and its vulnerabilities. Malls face unique security challenges. First of all, malls are comprised of numerous retail tenants whose goal is to draw in as much traffic as possible. But in a mall environment, people do not remain in one retailer’s store the entire time, meaning that any nefarious activities may impact the mall’s common areas and/or multiple retailers.

Malls are also open long hours to accommodate establishments that operate early in the morning as well as late in the evening (i.e., restaurants, theaters and bars). Many of these businesses process a large number of cash transactions, making them attractive targets for thefts or burglaries. With multiple entrances, exits and parking lots, the possibilities for evading security officers are numerous.

For all of these reasons, mall environments are ripe for crime. While mall security is technically responsible for securing the area, effective security requires collaboration between all retailers present in the mall.

The Keys to Effective Mall Security

The keys to effective mall security lie in working proactively to prevent problems and ensuring collaboration between all stakeholders. Below are some fundamental tenets of a strong mall security program:

Security is Everyone’s Job

One of the greatest challenges associated with securing a mall is that it is a patchwork of properties whose domain falls under different individuals. Retailers have their own security teams and practices, and they are focused on preventing problems in their particular space. However, security problems in malls have an impact on everyone, and to ensure a secure environment, everyone must work together. A good mall security director must be someone who can easily build relationships and collaborate with people. He or she should meet with LP teams and store managers regularly. By building relationships with tenant retailers, they will understand why and how they can best collaborate. For example, they should initiate communication about special events at the mall well in advance of the event, and should require all retailers to do the same. They should also share insights on suspicious activities, organized retail crime (ORC) trends or experiences and best practices. Mall security officials can help retailers take measures to prevent the occurrence of flash mobs and smash-and-grabs by suggesting best practices, such as keeping high visibility through store windows, not staging merchandise too close to the entrance/exit, and not displaying unsecured designer goods in windows.

Anticipate Problem Areas

Dark parking lots without active surveillance are the perfect place to initiate criminal activities. So are areas around the mall hidden by overgrown vegetation, large signs or the cover of darkness. It is security’s job to survey the area and know the areas that are most attractive to criminals. Take steps to make these areas less attractive targets for these kinds of activity by keeping vegetation well-pruned and ensuring parking areas are well-lit, for example. Maintain video coverage of problem areas like parking lots and enclosed stairwells, and hang signs that let people know surveillance is occurring. By taking these preventive measures, security professionals can stay a step ahead of criminals.

Conduct Audits to Ensure Consistency

When dealing with such a large physical space, it can be challenging to maintain all of these details with any level of consistency. Audits are a great tool for doing so. Security professionals can use audits to maintain the consistency of everything from employee training to safety procedures, from merchandise and inventory protection, to functionality of security equipment. Audits document efforts to prevent problems and also capture problems that need to be addressed and can help track them through to completion. They also enable security professionals to delegate efforts to ensure that policies and procedures are being followed across the entire campus in a consistent manner and ensure that everyone is measuring to precisely the same standard.

Partner with Law Enforcement

By building a rapport with law enforcement, it is possible to start a two-way conversation to share ideas about ORC trends, suspicious activities, and get a response when an event does occur. Share information about the facility with local police and ask what they will need in case of an incident. Conversations can range from informal introductions to table-top exercises, but the key is to initiate a partnership prior to a problem occurring.

Address Suspicious Behavior

When something does not feel right, it usually is not and that’s the time to address the problem. Occupied vehicles that are sitting for an extended period of time in the parking lot should be approached and asked “if they need help.” This provides an opportunity to note the license plate number and also lets the driver know they have been seen. The same goes for individuals or groups that are loitering or exhibiting suspicious behavior in or around the mall. They should be approached and questioned in an appropriate but direct manner. If retailers note odd purchases or combinations of purchases, they should share that information with mall security. This approach will cause criminals to leave, or could provide a tip that further investigation is warranted.

Preventive measures do not provide a guarantee that unexpected and unwelcome events won’t occur. However, they do help deter these kinds of crimes and also increase the ability to effectively respond. The result is the ability to control the situation more quickly and stop losses from mounting.






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