When Ron Graziano strolls around Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., you can almost hear his eyes clicking from storefront to storefront. He scans the common areas, watches for safety hazards, sizes up customers and looks for anything unusual — suspicious actions by people, a door ajar, a security grille closed when it shouldn't be. Shoulders back, a steadfast gait and a no-nonsense demeanor advertise Graziano's résumé — Army, Coast Guard and a stint as a police officer. The term “gravitas” comes to mind.

Graziano is director of public safety at Woodfield Mall, a 2.7 million-sq.-ft. super-regional mall located 23 miles northwest of Chicago. Although exceedingly polite when he stops tenants or shoppers, Graziano's assertive approach usually convinces people to comply with his requests the first time around.

Graziano is an employee of IPC International Corp., a Bannockburn, Ill., firm that specializes in shopping center security. IPC has nearly 25 years' experience in the field of shopping center security. The Taubman Co. has hired IPC to provide security at Woodfield. Nevertheless, Graziano is part of the mall management team and is involved in all aspects of the center — marketing, strategy meetings, promotions and facilities management. “The likelihood that a member of the security department will be approached with questions is far greater than any other member of the management team being approached. It can't be a stand-alone entity and be effective,” Graziano says. “We're an asset to the center.”

IPC puts its personnel through a customized pre-assignment and on-the-job training program ranging from public relations (tenant and customer relations, dealing with civil authorities), workplace safety, legal issues and response to major emergencies, such as evacuations, bomb threats, fire and severe weather. It also provides regular monthly training to keep them up to speed on industry changes, new security techniques and issues specific to the mall in which they work.

Goodwill ambassadors

“Our training philosophy is: See what we can do for people rather than see what people are doing. That's different than what traditional security looks for,” says Jeff Anderson, IPC's vice president of training and professional development. “We really try to get them to strip away those preconceived ideas of what security is and focus on customer support.”

Graziano, in fact, winces at words like “guard” and “patrol.” He views the security team's role as ambassadors of the retail center. “Ninety percent of our work is customer service and the rest is policy enforcement. Our goal is to provide a customer-friendly shopping experience and reduce people's stress by increasing their comfort level. If we're visible, friendly and approachable, it increases shoppers' confidence and they'll have a more enjoyable experience.”

The team's high visibility is key to the program's success. Would-be miscreants don't want to see security personnel or be noticed by them. “The more they see us, the less likely they are to do anything,” says Anderson.

One disarming technique: Security personnel routinely approach shoppers, say hello and ask if they can help. The technique works well no matter what the circumstances. Someone with a problem is happy for assistance and it thwarts the bad guys. It's one reason everyone's in uniform. Although undercover agents are beneficial in nabbing shoplifters in stores, there's a reduced benefit to deploying them in common areas.

The front line

Jesse Mendoza, a member of the Woodfield security team, marries smooth customer service and the authority of a security pro. He's outfitted in full regalia — uniform, hat, radio, shiny badges. A former Marine, he believes his demeanor and clean-cut image are important to his success. “I like short hair, and I want to be very organized, neat and clean. The better I look, the more comfortable people will feel talking to me.”

He's served on Woodfield's security team for seven years, a distinct advantage because most of the tenants and construction and delivery people know him. He says that longevity, combined with his personality, has allowed him to build a rapport with people throughout Woodfield and command respect from them. Due to his established relationships he rarely needs to “put on my game face,” as he characterizes it. Usually a friendly, “Hey guys, come on now, you know the rules,” suffices to keep everyone in line.

In addition to making rounds himself, Mendoza is a shift supervisor. When a new store opens, he stops by to say hello, outlines what his team can do to assist tenants and delivers a welcome kit. “We're a uniformed presence in the center to make people feel safe,” Mendoza states.

During our post-opening walk of the mall, a restaurateur was found hawking samples a little too aggressively — beyond his lease line — and was given a heads-up that it was a lease violation. Three men taking photographs of a storefront — an activity not allowed by the general public — were asked for ID and to explain what they were doing. Once it was discovered they were affiliated with the store we continued on our way.

Another rule: Construction during mall hours must be confined to store interiors. At a tenant space under construction, Graziano reminds contractors that it is time to drag in their materials and close up the space. Almost before Graziano opens his mouth, one of the workers says, “The mall guy is here and he's peeved.” Immediately the crew starts moving toward the offending construction materials.

Graziano says that enforcing this and all the other rules pays off: Eliminating little problems contributes to a clean, safe and well-run mall, the kind of place that shoppers expect.

High alert

Shopping center security is clearly more challenging than it was before September 11, 2001. “We're constantly in touch with what's going on in the shopping center industry and what risks are associated with it — whether it's a hard or soft target,” says Graziano.

To stay in touch with what's happening, Graziano maintains regular contact with IPC corporate management and local law enforcement agencies, including the homeland security defense representative with the Schaumburg Police Department. That person is a liaison with the Chicago bureaus of ATF, FBI and Secret Service, so any information coming from such agencies is disseminated to Woodfield security, to which it can respond appropriately.

And what's appropriate? Graziano declines to say, citing the need to keep his precautions secret. But he says: “Since September 11th, we're constantly adjusting our security deployment based on the needs of the center and on what's going on in the rest of the world.”

Tenant training

Working with tenants to help them recognize and minimize criminal activity is yet another role of the security team. Through regular merchant meetings and meetings with beat officers from the Schaumburg Police, tenants are kept apprised of any crime trends, such as credit card fraud or an increased use of booster (shoplifting) bags.

The team also conducts education sessions to train store employees to spot shoplifters and to respond to everything from theft to bomb threats. Other aspects of the job include continuous parking lot patrols, watching for known criminals and keeping an eye out for missing kids and runaways — two were recently found at Woodfield.

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.