Shopping centres have been a gathering place for nearly a century, and today many are larger than some airports, featuring an array of amenities designed to attract customers. But when it comes to security, malls face a difficult balancing act – how to keep shoppers safe without hurting mall retailers.
Saturday's shooting at Toronto's Eaton Centre brought home just how difficult that balancing act can be. Rising levels of violence and threats of terrorism have forced some malls, particularly in the United States, to introduce drastic measures such as restricting access by teenagers, banning certain types of clothing and using undercover officers specially trained in detecting trouble-makers.
But shopping malls can only go so far. Tightening restrictions too much can prompt a backlash from merchants who don't want to impede sales or pay increasing rent. Some stores won't even allow signs in mall parking lots that warn patrons to lock their doors, fearing the signs signal the mall is unsafe. And even the most dangerous malls in the United States and Canada have not gone so far as to install metal detectors.
"If you put metal detectors in your mall, the people who are your customers are going to say, 'This place has got real big trouble, we are going to go somewhere else,' " said Mike Fenton, director of consulting and client support at Paragon Security, a Toronto-based company that provides security at 56 malls across Ontario.
The company that runs the Eaton Centre, Cadillac Fairview Corporation Ltd., said it plans to review security measures in the wake of Saturday's shooting but the company won't restrict teenagers or put in metal detectors. "After an incident such as this, especially one of such magnitude, we conduct a thorough review of our procedures and we continue to do so," said Janine Ojah-Maharaj, the company's manager of corporate communications. "From all indications and initial reports, our security personnel acted quickly, professionally under very extraordinary circumstances."
Like many large malls, the Eaton Centre hires and trains its own security staff. While the company won't comment on its security operations, some experts estimate there were likely about 15 guards on duty in the mall when Saturday's shooting started. It's not clear how much training those guards received, but the minimum requirements for a security guard in Ontario are a criminal background check and a one-week course. However, most malls and private security firms provide additional training.
Other malls have gone much farther in terms of security and many have taken their lead from the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. The sprawling complex, with more than 500 stores and 40 million annual visitors, has an extensive security operation that includes more than 140 private security guards, two bomb-sniffing dogs, a bike patrol and an undercover unit that uses techniques developed in Israel to monitor people's behaviour. There's also a city police substation staffed by officers who make regular patrols.
The mall also pioneered a "parental escort policy" that's now being used in dozens of malls across the United States. Under the policy, everyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult, at all times, on Friday and Saturday evenings. Some malls, such as the Carousel Center in Syracuse, N.Y., have set the limit at 18-years old. "It works," said Dan Jasper, vice-president of public relations at the Mall of America.
No mall in Canada has followed suit yet and few are even considering such measures. Some have gone as far as banning "hoodies" or other clothing that can act as a disguise and most have installed high-powered video cameras. But the law limits how far mall security guards can go in targeting young people and most security experts say the real problem in malls isn't guns and violence, it's theft.
"Most people, when they go to the mall, the things they should be worried about are having things stolen out of their car, or maybe going into a washroom and hanging that leather jacket on the back of the door and having somebody reaching over and grabbing it," said Mr. Fenton, who doesn't believe Saturday's shooting will change much as far as mall security is concerned. "Those things are much more likely to happen."