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“Just wanting to make sure, No. 1, it is a safe environment; and No. 2, everyone knows it is a safe environment.”

That was the comment Mark Peterson made to a local news station in Rockford, Ill., regarding his top priorities after undergoing what could easily qualify as every mall manager’s biggest nightmare.

On Sept. 30, 2016, an altercation broke out between two groups of young men in the parking lot of Peterson’s CherryVale Mall, which is owned by CBL & Associates Properties. Gunfire erupted, store windows were shot and police put the mall on lockdown.

Less than two weeks later, on Oct. 8, a man in a wheelchair was shot once in the leg and once in the stomach as he tried to get into his car near the mall’s J.C. Penney entrance.

Malls are popular public gathering places, so it’s not unusual for them to serve as sites for public violence and even terrorism. They have been designated as soft targets by the Department of Homeland Security since the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., and most mall owners long ago established protocols to deal with criminal behavior and active-shooter situations. But recent incidents, including a shooting rampage that left five people dead at Macerich’s Cascade Mall in Washington state and nine people stabbed by a suspected terrorist at General Growth Properties’ Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, Minn., have property owners and managers nationwide reviewing their standards of preparedness.

“This is not new, by any means, but when you get a series of incidents over a short period of time — high-profile incidents like these — the perception is that this is terrible,” said David Levenberg, president of Center Security Services, and a former loss prevention and security chief for Sears, Target, Macerich and General Growth Properties.

CBL’s response at CherryVale was pretty much text-book, according to standards recommended by consultants such as Levenberg. The company contracts a third-party security firm that creates security protocols for each of its properties. It works closely with local law enforcement and treats security as an ongoing operation.

CherryVale managers conduct weekly security meetings and update all store managers on new policies or upcoming challenges. Local police are on-site at the mall on weekends and holidays, so a lockdown was accomplished in short order after shots rang out in the parking lot on Sept. 30, a Friday.

“I think the most important thing is communication with retailers, and that includes training as well as technology to keep them updated,” said CBL spokeswoman Stacey Keating, herself an expert on security protocols after a stint as a mall marketing manager in Pittsburgh. “CherryVale is a good example of how well that training worked. We had police on site and they locked it down. We allow them to make that call and then we quickly assembled our corporate crisis team to identify a staging area for all the media that would be coming to report on the incident.”

Store managers were alerted to the situation immediately via a secure communications channel and were told to lock their gates and shelter customers in place until police officers gave them the OK to open up. That was crucial to achieving the primary goal of keeping shoppers safe. Prevention is not stressed as much as minimizing the damage in security protocols, according to Levenberg.

“How quickly to react, how to reduce injuries, how to conduct customers to safe spaces, that’s what’s most important to address,” Levenberg said. “If there’s a determined individual or group willing to give their lives for what they’re doing, it’s very difficult to stop that from happening.”

Actions, of course, can be taken to deter planned acts of violence. (Technology can help too, see story on page 20.) But it is difficult to measure their effectiveness because it’s impossible to record situations that never materialize. However, investigations of perpetrators show that visible security presences such as gates, guards, cameras and patrol cars parked in front of entrances often convince criminals to move on to a softer target.

“People who want to do crimes look for the weakest link in the chain,” said Joe LaRocca, president of Retail Partners and the former VP of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation. (LaRocca is also a former loss prevention director for Disney and ESPN stores.) “Whether their goal is to steal and get away or to maximize casualties, they look for the path of least resistance.”

Law enforcement: A linchpin of CBL’s security strategy at all of its properties, Keating said, is to work closely with local law enforcement. According to security experts, police departments are usually more than willing to assist mall owners in deterrence and reaction measures. Not only does it help police units quicken their response, but it can also provide police forces and SWAT teams with real-life training grounds on which to hone their skills. “A lot of malls will do active-shooter drills for retailers and employees in off hours,” LaRocca said. “They’ll close the doors and sound the alarms and reenact a live situation. SWAT teams will rehearse hostage situations using real employees. It’s great for the police because they can’t do that in their own training facilities.”

It’s great for retailers and center owners, too, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers’ security chief, who professes that great security begins with great relationships with the responders — especially with the current challenges faced by shopping centers.

“There’s been a big push in the last three years to focus on active-shooter situations,” said ICSC senior VP Malachy Kavanaugh, who chairs a security committee at the association and takes part in a task force with counterparts at the NRF and the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Planning for such incidents dissipated over the years because military and law enforcement agencies were able to disrupt terror operations overseas. But then the problem became the lone wolf.”

It was the Dec. 11, 2012, shooting at the Clackamas Town Center outside of Portland, Ore., that put mall owners on alert for lone wolf attackers. Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, killed two people there as he moved throughout the property firing an AR-15. The incident was overshadowed by the Newtown shooting in Connecticut that transpired three days later, but Clackamas moved the industry task force to produce videos and other materials for mall employees on how to react to such a situation.

The Clackamas shooting also reinforced the general observation that such tragic occurrences don’t deter shoppers from returning to shopping centers. “At Clackamas, the community came out in great force to support the mall,” Kavanaugh said. “By and large, when these events take place, the public wants to deny the shooter victory.”

Shopping center owners will draw little blame for violent occurrences from consumers or media outlets as long as they demonstrate vigilance, according to Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

“What we do know from each disaster is that peoples’ sense of culpability or blame is generally related to the success of the response,” said Kayyem, now a security analyst and professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The Boston Strong ethic after the marathon bombing had a lot to do with how quick the response was on that day.”

The charge for

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