From Monitoring Teens to Minding Terrorists

In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Mall in Columbia upgraded its security system, including 100 cameras whose zoom lenses can be operated remotely and watched from a bank of 16 monitors.
In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Mall in Columbia upgraded its security system, including 100 cameras whose zoom lenses can be operated remotely and watched from a bank of 16 monitors. (The Mall In Columbia)

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The job of a shopping mall security guard normally involves controlling rowdy teenagers, finding lost children and patrolling parking lots. But starting this month, malls across the country will begin training guards for another task: fighting terrorism.

The 14-hour program is being developed by the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group, and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University at a cost of $2 million. It is the first standardized anti-terrorism curriculum written for the nation's estimated 20,000 mall security guards.

Developers of the program say it is crucial to safeguarding shopping centers, which have significant economic import -- as evidenced by the billions of dollars spent at malls during the holiday season -- and have emerged as modern-day town centers, with movie theaters, restaurants, and now grocery stores and gyms.

"Many different facets of our society since September 11 have had to take the stark realization that bad people might try to do bad things," said Paul M. Maniscalco, a senior research scientist at GW who helped create the program. "Security is really paramount in large enclosed malls. . . . . These events, when you respond to them, you make or break it in the first 20 minutes."

Not everyone agrees, however, that America's malls face a serious threat of terrorism. And some critics question the effectiveness of the training when the private security industry suffers from high turnover -- most guards leave the job within a year and some in as little as four months, according to estimates from the Service Employees International Union.

"There is no justification for this," said Ian S. Lustick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Trapped in the War on Terror." "It's too diffuse a problem. There's a security problem in any public place. . . . The retail industry and shopping malls is just one little part of that."

The training focuses on making guards more aware of the effects of terrorist attacks and helping them recognize potential attackers. It ranges from the understanding the characteristics of the nerve agent sarin (especially dangerous in enclosed spaces because it vaporizes quickly) to spotting suicide bombers (look for unusual dress, like a heavy coat in the middle of summer). The program is being tested at a handful of shopping centers, including the Mall in Columbia, and is planned to be rolled out over the next six months.

The Department of Homeland Security categorizes shopping centers, along with other easily accessible public places, as "soft targets." Since the 2001 attacks, the Smithsonian museums and national monuments have been among those increasing security, and the Washington Convention Center recently said it was beefing up emergency preparedness training for some workers.

Yet the retail industry has treaded warily. Customers expect shopping centers to be free and open, and malls are loath to introduce stringent security measures, as airports have done, that might limit shoppers' access -- or scare them off altogether. Though security officers are usually uniformed, they are not intended to appear threatening.

"Their job is to be welcoming," said Robert Rowe, director of development for the American Society for Industrial Security, an advocacy group for private security officers. "The shopping mall doesn't survive unless people come."

General Growth Properties Inc., which owns Tysons Galleria and the Mall in Columbia, has already restricted access to the roofs of its buildings, said David Levenberg, vice president of security and risk management. The Columbia shopping center recently installed a video surveillance system, a wall of 16 monitors and eight video recorders filling a tiny security office.

"You want to see the sales slip?" said Bill Burley IV, director of public safety and security at the mall, as he directed one of the more than 100 cameras to zoom in on a shopper looking at jewelry.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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