By Carol Eisenberg
WASHINGTON — The mall security guard scrutinizes the black backpack lying by the garbage bin. Should he open it? Ignore it? Call police?
In a world increasingly vulnerable to terrorism and random acts of violence like the rampage in a Salt Lake City mall Monday, security experts say that low-paid private security worker may be the front line of protection in one of the nation's most heavily trafficked places. And they question the adequacy of his training - or of the malls' security measures - to detect or deter an attack.
"For suburban America, the mall is the gathering place," said Mitchell Moss of New York University's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response. "It's much more than just a place to shop. It's where huge numbers of people gather to go to the movies, eat and socialize - therefore, making it a potential terror target. "
Roosevelt Field, the state's largest mall, may draw as many as 100,000 people a day at holiday peak - one reason Nassau police conducted a training exercise there a year after 9/11, based on the scenario of a plane crashing into the mall's food court.
The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly warned that malls are potentially attractive targets for terrorists, although officials say there is no credible intelligence of imminent plots.
It cites al-Qaida training manuals that identify "places of amusement" and "vital economic centers" as targets and a pattern of such attacks worldwide. A Rand Corp. survey documented over 60 attacks since 1998 on shopping centers in places as diverse as Russia, Turkey and Israel.
This country has seen only lone-wolf attacks - one of the bloodiest Monday night when an 18-year-old Bosnian refugee opened fire on shoppers in a Salt Lake City mall, killing five and wounding four before being gunned down by police. Police are still investigating his motive.
But such cases underscore how potentially vulnerable the nation's malls and shopping centers are to acts of violence, according to a recent Justice Department report, which found that while many malls have tightened security since September 2001, much more could be done. The report cited inadequate training for low-paid, high-turnover security workers, as well as insufficient drilling and coordination between mall security and first responders.
"Turnover in private security is huge," said author Robert Davis, citing rates as high as 100 percent in some places. "So even if you have a good program and people are trained in it, chances are that at any given moment, half your staff won't know what the plan is. "
But that assessment is disputed by the company that provides security to some of the area's biggest malls, all of which declined to participate in the survey, citing concerns about how the information might be used.
"The large developers - the Roosevelt Fields, the Smith Haven Malls - are far ahead in terms of quality of personnel and caliber of training," said Jon Lusher, senior vice president of IPC International Corp. of Illinois.
"Nine-eleven was a wake-up call," said Lusher, whose company provides security for 400 malls, including Roosevelt Field, The Source, Walt Whitman and Smith Haven malls. "There have been many, many changes, both in training and in our liaison with law enforcement and the sharing of information. "
Nonetheless, he acknowledged that malls balance the risk of terror against the costs of added security, and the economic imperative to be welcoming to shoppers.
He doubted, for instance, that most Americans would be willing to go through a metal detector and a bag search before entering a mall, as Israel shoppers do - one of the few things that would have stopped the Salt Lake City shooter.
"Clearly, there are business decisions made, in terms of how realistic it is that a certain shopping center is going to be attacked," he said.
How big is the threat? And how much security are Americans willing to put up with?
While some prophecize potentially apocalyptic scenarios - former National Security Adviser Richard Clarke predicted multiple attacks on malls and amusement parks in an article in The Atlantic two years ago - others are frankly skeptical.
"Despite the ease of killing Americans in shopping malls and schools, it hasn't happened," said political scientist Ian Lustick, author of "Trapped in the War on Terror. "
"The effort to master the unlimited catastrophes we can imagine by mobilizing scarce resources will drain our economy, divert and distort military, intelligence, and law enforcement resources, undermine faith in our institutions, and fundamentally disturb our way of life," Lustick said.
U.S. Homeland Security spokesman William Knocke said that the government has advised local officials to be vigilant, although "there is no credible intelligence to suggest any imminent threat. "
Impact of 9/11
Most mall owners, including the Simon Property Group, which owns several Long Island malls, refuse to talk publicly about risk assessments. But police, security contractors and trade groups say that since 9/11, local malls have expanded closed-circuit television systems, redesigned entrances to block car bombers, and bolstered training for private security.
Members of the International Council of Shopping Centers - including Simon - spent $1.8 million to develop a terror prevention course that they expect to put 20,000 security workers through by spring, said spokesman Malachy Kavanagh.
Designed by the Homeland Security Institute at George Washington University, the 14-hour course includes video simulations of security guards confronting scenarios such as an abandoned backpack.
Guards are drilled to move shoppers away and to notify police - and to avoid opening the pack or using a walkie-talkie close by because of the chance of setting off hidden explosives.
"The idea is not to turn security workers into G.I. Joes," said Paul Maniscalco at the Homeland Security Institute. "We're starting with the baseline education that the Department of Homeland Security has established for first responders, and customizing it to the shopping center environment. "
What can they do about a man brandishing a shotgun?
Even Maniscalco acknowledged there are no good options, especially for mostly unarmed private guards.
"As soon as they see someone who's a hostile actor, they're trained to make immediate notification to law enforcement, and then to get people out of the facility as quickly as possible," he said.
Training alone not enough
But while no one disagrees that more rigorous anti-terror training is needed, some say that training alone is insufficient.
"By not providing a living wage, mall security will continue to be compromised by high turnover and inexperienced officers," said Local 32BJ Spokesman Matt Nerzig, who said that median pay for security workers in the metropolitan area is $11.56 an hour.
Lusher declined to say how much his company pays its guards. But he acknowledged that turnover - between 30 and 40 percent nationally at IPC - "makes training more difficult, more time-consuming and more costly. That's exactly the reason you do more. " IPC's guards undergo a mandatory 48-hour training, plus two additional hours every month, he said.
Local police stress that beyond private guards, Long Island's malls have an active police presence, both in uniform and plainclothes. Roosevelt Field, for instance, has a police substation in the mall. And both Nassau and Suffolk also have instituted systems to share information back and forth with area retailers.
They also plan to do more simulations like the one at Roosevelt Field four years ago.
"Could we increase training and make things better still?" asked Nassau Police Insp. Matthew Simeone. "Yes, I think we could. Do we need to go the route of the invasive security checks done in Israel? I don't think we're at that point.
"Of course, events here and around the world may change that, in which case, attitudes are likely to change."
The Justice Department-sponsored report on mall security recommended:
More rigorous and standardized training of private security guards to detect, deter and respond to attacks.
Development of detailed emergency management plans, in coordination with the mall's tenants and first responders.
Regular drilling of private security, along with first responders, to test knowledge of those plans.
Bringing in experts to assess a mall's vulnerabilities and asking owners to reduce those on a cost-benefit basis.
Copyright 2007 Newsday, Inc.
Are malls safe from terror? Security experts question shopping center security