Thursday, December 06, 2007

Scenes From the Mall

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

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."


Anonymous said...

I was at a local mall when a tornado hit. I asked the one security guard I saw if there was a shelter or basement. He didn't answer, was probably the most panicked person I saw and was totally useless. On the 11pm news that night the mall manager talked about their "preparedness" and said all security was trained! Pretty pathetic huh? If it had been more than a tiny little parking lot swirl we've have been in big trouble but I knew enough to get away from any glass areas including the ceiling, doors into the mall, and second levels.

Papa Ray said...

How do you limit the damage that a lone gunman or several terrorists can do in public places?

This has already been solved over a hundred years ago in the Western and South Western parts of the U.S.

But because of stupid laws, ignorant local governments and the looney left, the solution has been mothballed. Worse than that, they are trying to make it impossible by taking away the solution.

Citizens carrying guns.

If I or most anyone else had been allowed to carry our permited weapon in that mall, and if we had been in the vicinity, more people would be alive now.

Not, of course, the shooter.

If people know that they are going to be up against armed and dangerous people, they most likely would think twice about going on shooting rampages.

Shot by an ol' man wouldn't have been quite what he meant when he said that "he wanted to go out in style."

You go around your city, and see how many business, malls, etc have signs posted prohibiting guns.

Just about all of them.

So, I take my pistol out, slide it under my seat and go in the store, rendering myself helpless against any one who wants to do bad.

I'm just another of the sheep, ripe for the slaughter.

It's a shame and most likely nothing can be done about it nowadays.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Tobias Kiuntke said...

I haven't been able to find a link but two weeks ago the Omaha PD found a LIVE grenade in the Westroads parking lot. Not suggesting terrorists but it's kind of scary nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

One group of folks who love our liberal gun laws are the muslim terrorists.
They are counting on liberal gun laws in the US to allow "home grown terrorists" to buy all the weapons they need for their “home grown” strike.
Read section 4.5 of one of their training manuals
They actually encourage their trainees to take advantage of the legal gun ownership laws here. “Why risk getting put in prison for doing anything illegal when you can buy assault weapons legally in the US”. The training manual even goes so far as to recommend the AK47 as the weapon of choice.

jamminedward said...

The real bottom line is that it is still and always "better to be judged by twelve than carried by six" or to watch helplessly while your family or neighbors are murdered, by madmen, regardless of motivation. I carry legally--most of the time--but I carry just about all the time. I made up my mind a long time ago, that I would not be a mere witness to something like this mall shooting. It is far more important for those of us exercising our 2nd A rights and fundamental responsibilities to defend ourselves and our families than it is for the wack-job liberals and race-baitors to engage in civil disobedience, if necessary, to assert and maintain our rights.

SwampWoman said...

I don't go to the mall, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the folks at Wal-Mart are carrying. (grin) Seriously, the only place more likely to draw terrorist/whacko attention is a school and for much the same reason.

thx1138 said...

I think MSM publishing of his real name and motives gives him and his future copycats the motviation. He is famous now.

It would be better to assign him a number and remove his identity from the media.

Unknown said...

Excellent points, all. In the aftermath of the Omaha massacre, CNN ran a story on mall security in Israel. Not surprisingly, the Israelis have a very effective system. You start with fully trained--and armed--security personnel on the perimeter, not someone's grandfather carrying a walkie-talkie.

Next, anyone entering the mall must pass through a metal detector (and a search more more security personnel). And, you'd better believe that the Israelis are profiling folks as they enter. Inside the mall, there are additional layers of security.

Yes, it costs more than the rent-a-cops at U.S. malls, but it works. In a country literally surrounded by terrorists, I can't remember the last time an Israeli shopping mall was struck.

The same system could work in the states, but no one wants to bother with the cost, or "inconvenience" the shoppers. That attitude will last until the first suicide bomber blows himself up in a Wal-Mart check-out line, or a truck bomb is driven into the entrance of a Target, Best Buy, or a shopping mall.