An Assessment of the Preparedness of Private Security in Shopping Malls to Prevent and Respond to Terrorist Attack

Since the events of September 11, 2001, security concerns have figured prominently in the national agenda. Government officials and the public now recognize a wider array of potential terrorist targets extending beyond military installations. These “soft targets”, or areas with public access, include transit hubs, schools, hospitals, and mass private spaces like amusement parks and sports arenas.

One type of soft target that has received too little attention is the retail mall. With all the other soft targets that exist, why should citizens be concerned about attacks against shopping malls? One reason is that the nature of malls makes them very vulnerable: there are multiple entrances and exits, and they are open to the public. Large numbers of people come and go, making it easy for potential terrorists to blend in unnoticed. Many of the visitors carry large parcels that could hide a bomb or other weapon. There are multiple ways to attack a mall, ranging from automatic weapons to car bombs to bombs placed inside the mall, even to an attack using a biological or chemical agent.

Moreover, the consequences of an attack could be quite serious. In the case of an attack using a biological or chemical agent, or a bomb blast resulting in structural collapse, the casualties could be very high. An attack could also produce insurance and job losses. A coordinated series of attacks against malls would almost certainly result in long-term lost business and serious regional or national economic consequences, as we saw in the airline industry following 9/11.

For the most part, malls and other soft targets that are part of our homeland security concerns are protected, not by public police, but by private security. Thus, the events of 9/11 thrust private security officers into a new and important role.

The Police Foundation, in cooperation with the Vera Institute of Justice, the ASIS International Foundation, Midwest Research Institute, and researchers at the University of Eastern Kentucky and Carlton University undertook an assessment of the level of security in large enclosed shopping malls as well as the associated issues of training and legislation of private security forces. The core issue we address in this report is the degree to which malls have become better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks in the aftermath of 9/11.

The investigation we conducted went well beyond earlier surveys conducted after 9/11. It included surveys with 33 state homeland security advisors to get their views on mall preparedness as well as surveys with 120 security directors of the nation’s largest indoor retail malls. We conducted site visits to eight U.S. malls and two Israeli malls to gain greater insight into how they are dealing with security preparedness and response to disasters. We conducted a state-by-state analysis of legislation regulating the hiring and training of private security.

The detailed assessment indicates what malls are doing in the areas of risk assessments, preventive measures, emergency preparedness plans, training, and coordination with state and local government. The comprehensive picture that emerges of the state of security in large retail malls suggests that (a) there are significant gaps in preparedness, (b) there are relatively inexpensive steps that can be taken to fill those gaps, and (c) state homeland security officials and local police as well as mall owners and have a role to play in filling those gaps.

Full report 

Police Foundation Report (research brief)