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.
But a report released early in 2006 under leadership of the Police Foundation, a District think tank, found that although some malls have made changes, they have not been enough. The study, funded by the Justice Department, cited lack of coordination with local law and emergency forces and financing for new technology. It highlighted poor training of mall officers in terrorism awareness and response as one of the industry's main challenges.
That thinking broadens the responsibility of security guards: Mall security directors surveyed in the report put loitering kids as their top concern, with terrorism second. Only 2.5 percent required guards to have some college education. Less than 1 percent mandated a degree in criminal justice.
Robert C. Davis, lead author of the study who now is senior research analyst at Rand Corp., said it is not feasible to teach mall guards the complex skills needed to identify potential terrorists, who are tracked through highly developed intelligence networks. He contends there is little malls can do to prevent an attack -- they can only react to one.
"The biggest things malls can do is have really well-developed, detailed emergency response plans and rehearse them," Davis said. "The best thing they can do is respond effectively."
Maniscalco said the curriculum focuses on awareness and response and was developed with the same materials used in training courses for emergency responders and law enforcement, tailored for mall security officers.
The instructional DVD was shot at the Boulevard Mall in Las Vegas. One lesson shows a man dressed as a janitor with a hose who seems to be watering plants in the food court. But there is no badge on his uniform and his eyes are scanning the crowd rather than looking at the plants.
Actually, he is spraying dangerous chemicals into the air, Maniscalco said. And instead of following an instinct to rush to the scene -- and possibly exposing themselves to the chemical -- guards should block off the area and call police, he said. The DVD also has live footage of terrorist attacks from New York to Russia, including the carnage following a suicide bombing in Israel.
"This is all real-world, everyday stuff that the security officer will encounter," Maniscalco said.
In fact, a man was arrested in December for plotting to use hand grenades and a pistol to disrupt Christmas shopping at a Rockford, Ill., mall. Two years ago in Columbus, Ohio, a man with alleged ties to al-Qaeda was indicted for wanting to shoot up a local mall. He is awaiting trial.
Still, there has been never been a terrorist attack against a U.S. shopping center. William Flynn, director of risk management for Homeland Security, said there was no intelligence to suggest shopping centers were in danger. The handful of reported threats seem to have come from lone wolves rather than organized cells, skeptics say.
"I wouldn't say let's classify every shopping mall in the country as critical infrastructure and start handing out federal grants" said James Carafano, a homeland security expert with the Heritage Foundation. "Putting a lot of money in this doesn't make much sense."
The initial rollout of the curriculum is being funded by the International Council of Shopping Centers, and companies that provide the private security for the country's shopping centers have agreed to participate, council spokesman Malachy Kavanagh said. Financing for the future has yet to be determined, but Kavanagh said the group plans to apply for federal grants. Flynn said he supports the program and that Homeland Security has conducted risk assessments at several shopping centers across the country.
One of the first guards to go through the new training program was Lt. Al Pineiro, who has worked at the Mall in Columbia for the past 10 years, starting part-time and recently going full-time. A former Army recruiter, he was at the National Guard facility in Silver Spring on Sept. 11, 2001. He recalled watching one of the World Trade Center towers crumble on a big-screen television with his fellow soldiers.
"I was shocked that it happened so close to home," he said.
Pineiro said the anti-terrorism training recalled the lessons he learned in the months following the attacks. It took him several days to complete the course, and he aced the final exam.
"It just reminds us that we have to stay alert," he said. "We can't afford to get complacent."