Malls Say Their Security Is Sound

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shoppers can expect beefed-up security at Omaha malls after Wednesday's Westroads Mall shooting.

Mayor Mike Fahey posted extra uniformed officers at shopping malls that were open Thursday, and mall executives said they have adequate security programs.

By Thursday morning, Signal 88 Security of Omaha had received between 30 and 40 calls from department stores, strip malls and other retailers, said Reed Nyffeler, director of sales and marketing.

The calls started immediately after Wednesday's shooting at Von Maur in the Westroads, which left nine people dead, including the gunman.

Most malls have internal security staffs, Nyffeler said, but the number of officers, their hours, the visibility of their uniforms and other factors vary. Private security officers are usually unarmed, but not always.

Nyffeler said that to be effective, a mall should assign a guard at every entrance of a shopping center, at least during the Christmas season.

Mall managers declined to describe their security measures in detail because doing so could compromise their effectiveness. They said they strive to provide safe surroundings for shoppers, and random attacks like Wednesday's should not deter people from their daily routines.

"We have taken steps to provide a safe and comfortable shopping environment, and I believe that all of the other shopping centers have done the same thing," said Ted Harris, general manager of Oak View Mall.

Alicia Peters, marketing director for Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion, said the mall is confident of its safety. "We believe what we have in place is where it needs to be." The stakes are high for shopping centers at this time of year. Some retail publications say holiday sales can exceed $10 per square foot per day, or more than $10 million a day for a mall the size of Westroads.

Westroads closed Wednesday afternoon after the shooting and remained closed Thursday and today.

"It can be very difficult for a merchant at this time," Peters said. "This is detrimental, definitely." Lindsey Searcey, head of the security department for Armored Knights, said mall managers will be "on high alert" over the next couple of weeks.

"They will get security in there to reassure customers," Searcey said. "I want to help these people as much as possible.

"It's not about the money aspect. It's about helping people just feel safe. Sometimes it takes an incident like this to make people realize that it can happen at any time." Joe Citro, president of Omaha Security Inc., said most retail security efforts are aimed at preventing theft, through the use of security cameras and plainclothes officers.

"We live in a reactionary society," Citro said. "911 changed security within the country itself.

"I think events like these, they definitely make companies, organizations and people react to the situation." He said he expects the number of uniformed security officers to be increased at many places in Omaha.

Baldemar Sanchez of Council Bluffs said although the Westroads shooting did cross his mind, he wouldn"t let it deter his holiday shopping. He took his 4-year-old son to the Mall of the Bluffs on Thursday.

"You"ve got to push forward," he said. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but one way or another, we"ve got to move on." "I really don"t think anything would happen, but it's always in the back of your mind after you see something like that," said Mike Wilson of Elliott, Iowa, who also was at Mall of the Bluffs. "I"d have to say I"m probably a little more alert today than usual when I walk through somewhere." Don LaChere, general manager of Omaha's Village Pointe Shopping Center, said the random nature of Wednesday's shooting means that it could have happened anywhere people gather.

"In today's world," he said, "you just need to be aware, you need to be alert . . . and have your antenna up all the time." Brenda Stewart, manager of Crossroads Mall, said random violence is "challenging to prevent and difficult to deal with when it occurs." "Law enforcement and security prevention measures, no matter how good, cannot forestall a tragedy such as this from happening," Stewart said, reading from a statement.

Some of Crossroads" security measures are visible to the public, and others are less noticeable, she said.

"We maintain a close working relationship with local law enforcement authorities to ensure that the appropriate security measures are being taken to help provide and maintain a safe environment at our mall." A mall in Kansas City, Mo., reopened within 48 hours of a shooting last spring that killed three people, said Zach Daub, a property manager at Rockbrook Village in Omaha. That is an important lesson, he said.

"One of the best things you could do is to re-establish some sense of normalcy," Daub said. "I"m sure the effects will be felt, but we can"t live in fear and let fear overpower you and keep you from your normal daily life." Daub said Diversified Properties, which manages Rockbrook and several other Omaha retail properties, contacted its tenants, reiterated the property's security arrangements and asked them to be "in a little bit of an elevated kind of alert." Robert Batt, executive vice president with Nebraska Furniture Mart, which draws hundreds of thousands of shoppers each year, said the shooting "absolutely hurts everyone, especially the victims, but everybody gets hurt by this." Even the best security plan can"t do much to prevent a determined attack, he said.

"You make your buildings customer-friendly, but they"re also criminal-friendly because they"re open and accessible," Batt said. "That's the price we pay in today's society. People can prey on that." All stores try to be vigilant and protect their customers and employees, he said.

"I would go out and buy something there (Von Maur) tomorrow just to show my support for the company. It could happen to anybody."

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