For years, industry experts have complained that shopping center security departments are under-staffed and under-trained. Those shortcomings became painfully obvious last month. An 18-year-old, Sulejmen Talovic, walked unmolested into the 239,000-square-foot Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah with a backpack full of ammunition, a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol. There he started a shooting rampage, killing five people and seriously injuring another four.

And many believe it could have been a lot worse had it not been for a off duty police officer Ken Hammond who happened to be having dinner at the property. He traded shots with Talovic holding him at bay until the local SWAT team arrived. Talovic was then killed in a subsequent shootout.

Notably absent from this chain of events is any mention of the mall's security guards. One witness even told local television station KSL-5 that the security officers ran for cover at the first sound of gunshots.

If industry standards prevailed at Trolley Square, the security guards were armed with little more than cans of mace and handcuffs, making only a bit more than minimum wage and had no training in how to handle such an explosive scenario.

Trolley Square officials would not disclose details about the specifics of its security, including the firm it uses or how its personnel might have been trained.

Several recent studies have shed light on the sad state of mall security. In December, the U.S. Department of Justice released, “An Assessment of the Preparedness of Large Retail Malls to Prevent and Respond to Terrorist Attack,” suggesting the problem is widespread.

In a survey of 120 mall security directors, 60.2 percent said that training for security staff at their center has not improved since 9/11 and another 94 percent said that there has been no change in hiring requirements for security officers. Moreover, 84.2 percent said they saw no increase in security spending, with shopping malls in the United States still allocating only 3 percent to 5 percent of their operating budgets to security. That translates to about $0.07 per square foot. In comparison, downtown security buildings spend $0.47 for contracted security, according to data from the Institute of Real Estate Management's 2006 “Income/Expense Analysis Reports for Key Property Sectors.” Shopping centers spend even less than apartment buildings, which average $0.08 per square foot, despite malls being identified as possible “soft targets” by the Department of Homeland Security.

At the same time, shopping centers remain among the most readily accessible targets for both terrorists and garden-variety criminals — since 1998, more than 60 attacks have taken place at shopping centers around the world, according to “Reducing Terrorism Risk at Shopping Centers,” a report produced by the RAND Corp., a non-profit think tank. Just last December, the FBI arrested a man for allegedly planning to set off grenades at the 783,167-square-foot CherryVale Mall in Rockford, Ill.

“With a shopping center, you open your doors for business in the morning and anyone is able to go in,” says Scott Born, vice president of corporate relations with Marietta, Ga.-based Valor Security Services, a firm that works with 180 malls nationwide. “It's not like an airplane where people go through prescreening and there are bomb-sniffing dogs and X-rays.”

As a result, shopping center security personnel provide the first and, in some cases, the only line of defense against both terrorists and common criminals. They are also responsible for evacuating properties in case of an emergency. But because the pool of job candidates with previous security experience in shopping centers is so small — Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for ICSC, estimates that there are only about 20,000 guards with a background in shopping centers to serve an industry that contains 48,000 properties — owners often grab anyone who applies for the job, according to Chris McGoey, founder of Los Angeles-based McGoey Security Consulting and publisher of the crimedoctor.com website.

Yet mall companies tend to pay low wages for these positions, ranging from minimum wage to $14 an hour, with the median starting rate of $8.50, according to the Department of Justice report. Wal-Mart sales associates, by comparison, make $8.26 and the average hourly wages for all retail workers is $12.69. In other words, you can make more working a cash register than guarding it.

The reason wages are so low, according to the IREM survey, is that 46 percent of real estate owners feel tenants won't help them absorb added costs.

Making a security officer's job even less appealing is that guards often have to deal with verbal abuse and are generally disrespected, McGoey says “Some aren't comfortable with confrontation,” McGoey says.

As a result, the Department of Justice report found a near 100 percent turnover rate among mall security personnel. The combination of low wages and stressful working conditions leads to guards looking for better security jobs after they've racked up two or three years of experience, says Kavanagh.

Who gets hired

The problems start with the hiring process. Most owners and security contracting firms check for criminal records and many ask for a valid driver's license and a certain level of fitness. (Security officers are expected to be able to walk up the stairs and physically assist people in an emergency.) But the Department of Justice report found that less than one in 10 centers had any age requirements for the job, with 4.3 percent asking that applicants be at least 18 and 3.6 percent requesting applicants of at least 21 years of age. In addition, less than 47.1 percent of those surveyed required a high school diploma or a higher level of education, and even fewer (12.7 percent) required previous experience in security, military service or law enforcement.

In fact, IPC International Corp., a Bannockburn, Ill.-based firm that provides security for more than 450 shopping centers in the United States and the United Kingdom is sometimes reluctant to hire former law enforcement professionals because their mission may be different from what is needed in the mall, says Jonathan Lusher, principal consultant and executive vice president. IPC wants its officers to take a more customer-friendly approach, says Lusher. “We don't want them to have bad habits from other security jobs where the emphasis may have been different.”

Some companies are also worried about the impression the guards make on their customers. Macerich Co., which runs a portfolio of 73 regional malls, hires security personnel in-house. It prefers its security officers to have a background in customer service than security. The firm feels that training compensates for lack of experience.

Many security firms and mall owners also train their guards to report suspicious activity to the center's management or the police rather than act themselves if they don't think there is an immediate threat. Since the guards' greatest weapons are a can of mace and maybe a set of handcuffs, they are limited in what they can do anyway. But considering the fact that more than 90 percent of terror attacks on malls worldwide involve explosives, according to RAND, the strategy of relying on police to save the day might be counterproductive. “Emergency response preparedness is very important in many instances, but it has a very limited effect with terrorism. In most cases, once an attack has happened, there is very little you can do,” says Tom LaTourrette, a physical scientist with RAND.

Training day

There are also no uniform training standards for mall security personnel and it varies widely from one center to the next. Macerich has a program that lasts 60 days, involves both Internet-based and mentor training and covers everything from company procedures and spotting suicide bombers to working with law enforcement officials, according to Charles Waldron, Macerich senior vice president of property management.

IPC International makes its recruits go through a 48-hour basic training program that includes sections on criminal and civic law, emergency response, terrorism preparedness and workplace safety, in addition to mandating a two-hour monthly training update for all of its officers.

At Valor Security Services, the initial training program includes 60 hours of classroom and Internet instruction, with courses ranging from patrol techniques to radio procedures and customer service. After that, Valor's security personnel are evaluated during twice-quarterly visits by regional vice presidents, who give guards feedback on performance and meet with each center's management to make sure the security program is running smoothly, says Mert Price, director of business development with the firm.

But some security personnel get no training at all. “Some shopping centers will just hire two guard service people to patrol the property and don't really give them any direction; they just tell them to wander around the area,” says McGoey.

In addition, during visits to eight different malls, researchers for the Department of Justice found that none had established a chain of command for alerting first responders and most of the guards didn't have a clear idea how to coordinate an evacuation plan. “It was not encouraging that, in one mall, the security director said that he would refer to his company's manual in the event of an emergency,” they wrote.

In all, the report concludes, it does not add up to a very conforting picture.

Changing Standards

ICSC recently developed a standardized anti-terrorism training program for its members. Scheduled to debut this month, the DVD-based program was created in partnership with George Washington University, which has done extensive research in the fields of crisis management and homeland security.

The program takes about 12 hours to complete and is divided into 10 sections, which cover topics from the history of terrorism to behavioral characteristics of suicide bombers to working with law enforcement officials when they are responding to an incident. At the end, trainees are expected to take a 45-question final exam and if they get a score above 70, will receive certification from George Washington University.

This unified training, available free of charge to all ICSC members and their security service providers, will be an improvement over the current situation, but it won't become a requirement, say officials at ICSC. The organization does expect that most of its member owners will use the program.

Meanwhile, RAND Corp. found that employee threat ID training, which costs from $54,000 to $153,180 a year, is one of the most effective measures in preventing a terrorist attack. And when security guards are properly trained, armed, equipped with bomb-sniffing dogs and allowed to conduct mandatory bag searches, they can reduce the threat of an attack by as much as 20 percent. — EM