Each day across America, legions of security officers at thousands of shopping malls attempt a balancing act that rivals a circus high-wire act. Not only must they ensure that bag-laden patrons feel entirely safe, but they must do it in a way that doesn't make shoppers feel under siege. Metal detectors or bag searches just won't do.
Malls typically don't release statistics about crime in their corridors. But anecdotal evidence and a growing number of new security measures - from police stations in malls to roving social workers counseling teens - hint that violence may be on the rise.
"Malls are fragile structures," says Robert McCrie, a security expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Crime can be devastating to a mall, he says. If people perceive that a mall isn't safe, they'll simply stop coming. "Security isn't something nice to have," he says. "It's obligatory."
So, mall-security managers are taking ever-more creative and low-key steps to ensure safety, especially during the holiday shopping season.
* The Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Conn., for example has employed two social workers for the past three years to walk the mall and help teens find activities other than hanging out. They have a training program to help teens land mall jobs and provide information about after-school sports programs in the community. Mall records show a reduction in the number of teen disturbances.
* Housing police substations in malls has become a popular tactic. Malls provide free rent to police departments, and in exchange the number of uniformed officers coming and going from the mall jumps. Police don't patrol the mall itself, but by being on the premises they are readily accessible if the mall's security force needs help.
* Bike and horse patrols are being put in place in many mall parking lots, typically the area of greatest security concern. They usually augment car patrols, but are seen as more accessible to the public.
* Malls owned by TrizecHahn Centers, such as Horton Plaza in San Diego, have recently put into their lots the most comprehensive call boxes in the industry. Phones are attached to tall poles with blues lights atop them. When a patron picks up the phone, he or she reaches a guard who will stay on the line until help arrives. At the same time, the blue light starts flashing immediately to alert patrolling guards of a problem.
Over the years, malls have increasingly become more things to more people - from tourist destinations for foreign travelers to veritable afternoon youth centers for teenagers. And mall managers are working harder to avoid offending the ever-more-diverse patrons shuffling through the plant-lined walkways.
For instance, once-popular policies that targeted teens, such as curfews and time limits, have served to put off shoppers more than prevent crime. They've now fallen out of favor.
"No one wants to alienate or ban any group of shoppers from their premises," says Mark Schoifet, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.
On the persistent problem of how to handle wandering teens, he points out that these young customers spend an average of $39 per visit. As such, they not only are current customers, but they are also a shopping center's future. "Usually problems can be resolved by just talking to the kids," Mr. Schoifet says.
DESPITE the emphasis on keeping malls crime-free, experts say one incident will not necessarily ruin a mall's future. What's important, they say, is building a track record of safety.
This point was proved recently when a security guard was shot at one of Atlanta's most upscale malls, Lenox Square. When the guard approached three teens, who allegedly shoplifted nearly $500 worth of clothes from Macy's department store, they shot him in the leg and side. Police cordoned off a large section of the mall during a busy Saturday.
But the incident does not appear to have dramatically reduced the number of shoppers going to the mall. The mall manager says that Lenox has beefed up security and that mall traffic has not dropped since the shooting.
Patrons seem cautious, but not deterred. "The shooting has made me look twice," says Vanetta Gardner, shopping with her daughter in Lenox Square. "But you can't base what you do on one particular individual," she says. "You can't live your life like that or you would never go anywhere."