There are only five more shopping days until Christmas. For mall security directors and local police, that means five more days of hoping upon hope that nothing bad happens.
Suburban malls and urban retail centers overflow with shoppers this time of year-- 50 million people a month-- and most shop with no security problems whatsoever. But the once-rare and random attacks are now on the increase and shopping centers are on guard.
"There is no 100% guarantee that nothing will happen. There is just no way to guarantee that," said Diane Ritchey, editor, Security Magazine.
That is the golden rule of securing shopping malls: It can't be done. And the second commandment seems to be: Don't talk about it.
"There is a balance they have to strike of protecting an image but by and large you don't to put too much out there that you frighten consumers," said Malachy Kavanagh, vice president, International Council of Shopping Centers.
While the primary association of shopping centers spoke to us, not a single mall or management company in Chicagoland contacted by the I-Team would discuss keeping customers safe.
It is a challenging time for U.S. retailers. Last week in a New Jersey mall parking lot, a young lawyer was shot and killed by carjackers. Last month, there was mall chaos and confusion as a gunman opened fire at another New Jersey mall, terrifying thousands before killing himself. Last September, four gunmen took over an overseas mall, killed 72 and escaped. And last year, a mall gunman opened fire on Oregon shoppers, killing two before killing himself.
"We have to take lessons away from this. Can't just walk away and say what a horrible situation let's not think about it again," said Jeff Chudwin, president, Illinois Tactical Officers Association.
Even though statistics indicate fear is greater than risk, mall operators are investing in high-tech surveillance equipment, better-trained guards and they're partnering with local and federal law enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security has even teamed up with a property group which owns malls in the Chicago area to promote the "if you see something, say something" campaign.
And, discreetly, late at night, local police agencies are being invited inside malls to run practice drills.
"The police department does drills under a number of different scenarios, working with many different partners. I can't go beyond that," said Wayne Gulliford, chief of bureau patrol, Chicago Police Department.
This is one federally-funded agency providing response and recover training to hundreds of thousands of participants, including police departments in our area.
Another is run by tactical expert Jeff Chudwin training local cops for active shooter situations in shopping malls and other crowded public places. Chudwin says Illinois has its own unique program with combined efforts of many agencies, including the federal government.
"I won't go into specific technology but I will tell you all the technology upgrades are assisting us at some level," said Chudwin.
Better security is intended not to be obvious, from sophisticated surveillance systems featuring facial recognition and cameras that zoom in on license plates. Some systems spot bags left behind, count people entering and exiting, and can even detect dangerous flash mobs forming.
"Often times it takes a major security event to take place for people to spend the money on technology and people and training," said Chudwin. Experts stress that being able to protect yourself begins with having a good idea of what is going on around you.
When you go to any public place, have an idea where the exits are. Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, leave the building and notify security or police.
If you can, run. If you can't, hide. And if you have to, fight back.
Illinois Tactical Officers Association
National Center for Biomedical Research and Training Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education
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