Entrance to the Von Maur department store at Omaha's Westroads Mall. Gunman Robert Hawkins opened fire on the store's third floor yesterday, killing eight people before taking his own life. Terror groups remain interested in shopping malls as potential targets, but recent surveys show retailers have done little to improve security (AP photo via Brietbart.com)
While yesterday's tragic mall massacre in Omaha will almost certainly rekindle the public debate over mental health care and gun control, it seems to be clouding an equally important issue--public safety at shopping outlets, and their potential vulnerability to terrorist attacks.
Indeed, you could almost hear the feds' collective sigh of relief when the Nebraska shooter--19-year-old Robert Hawkins--was identified as another lonely, troubled youth with a history of depression, personal problems and petty criminal behavior. According to WOWT-TV, Hawkins had been kicked out of his family's home in recent months, lost his at a fast food restaurant job and broke up with his girlfriend. The latter events may have been the final straws that drove him to the shooting spree, which left nine people (including Hawkins) dead. In a suicide note, Hawkins boasted that he was "going out in style," and "now I'll be famous."
If the Virginia Tech tragedy is any indication, discussion of the Omaha incident will focus on what could have been done to identify Hawkins' problems, and provide the mental health care that he needed. Never mind that "profiling" potential gunmen is a crapshoot, at best. Or that there's no guarantee that a patient will follow a prescribed course of counseling, medication or other treatment.
The same holds true for the gun control argument. Westroads Mall in Omaha (where the shooting occurred) bans firearms on the premises, and there are signs to remind shoppers of the prohibition. The signs (obviously) did nothing to deter Hawkins, but they did prevent law-abiding citizens from carrying weapons that might have halted the shooter's rampage.
Meanwhile, it's a relatively safe bet that the massacres in Omaha, Salt Lake City (where a Muslim emigre killed six people at a mall earlier this year) and at Virginia Tech have attracted the attention of terrorist organizations. They understand that a well-planned attack against a mall or "big box" retailer would kill scores of Americans, and deliver a devastating blow to our economy, and our national psyche.
And not surprisingly, there have been past rumblings about that type of strike. In early November, Brian Ross of ABC News reported that the FBI was warning retailers and local law enforcement about an alleged Al Qaida plot to attack shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago during the holiday season. That report was later discounted, since the FBI's source apparently had only indirect access to the information. Still, jihadist chat rooms have regularly posted comments from individuals who have suggested--or boasted--about potential attacks against soft targets like shopping malls.
"Soft" might be an understatement. While most towns dotted with malls, shopping centers and big box stores, evidence suggests that few retailers or property owners are investing in security measures that might deter a terrorist attack. As Joseph Straw of Security Management magazine reported earlier this year:
A recent RAND Corporation report concludes that if malls implement six to ten security measures rated as highly effective, they could cut their vulnerability to attack substantially. But even that focused approach could cost a mall from $500,000 to $2 million.
Researchers drew up their list of 17 possible terrorist scenarios by looking at the types of shopping center attacks that were carried out around the world between 1998 and 2005. By far the greatest historical risk to shopping centers is bombs placed by outsiders, followed by pedestrian suicide bombs, then vehicle bombs, set off either in parking garages or outside buildings. Ninety percent of all recorded attacks employed explosives, and 71 percent did not require the attacker to commit suicide.
Mr. Straw found equally discouraging trends in a similar study conducted by the National Institute of Justice, based on surveys of state homeland security directors and mall security managers. Researchers also visited eight U.S. sites and two Israeli malls. Among their findings:
"..most malls had created emergency management plans, they often lacked input from police and first responders.
In many states, homeland security offices had not placed a priority on working with large malls to improve security. The only sites to increase security spending beyond the rate of inflation had received money through the federal Buffer Zone Protection Program (BZPP).
Of the eight U.S. malls visited, only five had conducted risk assessments, all instigated by BZPP or the state homeland security advisor.
Of U.S. malls visited, most had policies to monitor and restrict store deliveries, and all had some form of antiterrorism training for security personnel, but the programs varied widely, and about two-thirds of security directors said they believed their training was inadequate.
Nearly three-quarters of the security directors reported that they had developed written protocols for security staff to follow in the event of a disaster. Site visits, however, revealed that none of the U.S. malls had a plan for coordinating with first responders, and only two had conducted drills. In addition, there was a lack of coordination between mall security and counterparts at anchor stores.
Many malls appeared to have good relationships with local law enforcement, and just over a third of them said those relationships had improved since 9-ll. But, again, there was little cooperation in rehearsing a response to emergencies.
By all accounts, the security staff at Westroads Mall and the Omaha Police Department responded swiftly and professionally to the shooting rampage; their actions may have prevented the additional loss of life. But, it's also important to remember that the Omaha rampage was the work of a lone gunman who managed to kill eight shoppers (and himself) in just over six minutes. We can only imagine what might have happened if that mall had been attacked by a team of trained terrorists, with far more firepower and additional measures (i.e. explosives) for targeting first responders.
ADDENDUM: As we've noted before, retailers and mall owners will continue to drag their feet on security until that first terrorist attack. From their perspective, an "overtly" visible security presence might raise fears and scare away shoppers. Instead of spending $500K-$2 million on security (as recommended by the Rand Study), invest it in facility improvements, or an advertising blitz. That's why shopping security is still an individual responsibility, to a large degree. You can't force the big box retailer or mall manager to upgrade security, but you can report suspicious activity to local police, and report obvious glitches to managers and supervisors above the local level.
We don't want to keep anyone from their holiday shopping, but the bottom line in this matter is rather simple--and sobering: a major terrorist attack against a large retail store or shopping mall in the U.S. isn't a matter of "if," but "when."