The Single Threat
After more than a decade of anti-terrorist preparation — including increased training, enhanced surveillance and unprecedented cooperation with law enforcement authorities — the retail industry is responding to a different kind of threat: the lone gunman.
It’s not an industry-specific threat: Gunmen have opened fire in schools, movie theaters and airports. But the stream of anonymous shoppers bustling in and out of stores seems to hold a special attraction.
Over the past 18 months, there have been shooting events at The Mall in Columbia in Maryland; Garden State Plaza and the Mall at Short Hills, both in New Jersey; and Clackamas Town Center in Oregon. And last September, a terrorist attack by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab group at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, left nearly 70 people dead.
These aren’t the only “active shooter” events involving retailers. More common are incidents where gunmen show up in a store to commit a robbery, pursue a grievance or settle a score with an ex-girlfriend or co-worker.
One such example: Late on the evening of January 16, a man walked into a Martin’s Super Market in Elkhart, Ind., and stalked the store, shooting and killing a female employee and an older female shopper. The shooter had his gun trained on a third intended victim when he was confronted and fatally shot by Elkhart police officers.
Less than 10 days later, Darion Marcus Aguilar got up early on a Saturday morning, and headed to The Mall at Columbia in suburban Baltimore. He spent an hour at the food court before heading to Zumiez, a store he had visited previously. This time, satchel in hand, he headed to a dressing room, where he took a selfie with shotgun in hand to post on Tumblr and a blog site.
On his way out of the store, police say he shot and killed workers Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25, and then pointed his gun at shoppers, storekeepers and anybody else he could find before turning it on himself.
“The frequency of active shooter events has increased in recent years,” says J. Pete Blair, director of research for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center and an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University. “From about 2000 to 2008 they averaged about five a year. Since 2009, it’s increased to about 15 a year.”
Blair cited statistics from a paper published earlier this year in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that he wrote with M. Hunter Martaindale and Terry Nichols, both associated with the training center.
The paper’s findings noted that businesses, led by retail stores, were the most frequently attacked locations. In addition, 18 percent of attackers “went mobile,” starting at one location and then moving to another while still attacking.
Blair says shooting incidents typically consist of a tremendous amount of violence compressed into a very small timeframe. The average police response in events analyzed by his team was just three minutes, yet in 49 percent of the incidents, the shooting had ceased before police arrived.
“This points to the phenomenal speed with which these incidents occur,” Blair says.
One area where the response has been much greater and more visible is in defensive measures, including training.
“Active shooter events are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving, which is why it is so important to focus on simple strategies that have been proven to be effective,” says Jeremiah Hart, an instructor with the Los Angeles-based Force Training Institute.
“The most simple response strategy would be ‘Run, Hide, Fight,’” he says, describing the approach being taught across the nation through a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement. “All store employees should receive this life-saving information, which would in turn increase the safety of the entire shopping center and community.”
Blair agrees with this concept, though he quibbles with its name. “Hide is too passive. We prefer ‘Avoid. Deny. Defend,’” he says. “Avoid in that you want to get out of the way of the shooter. Deny — secure yourself inside. Then, if you must, defend yourself if you are confronted.”
Some retailers are taking proactive measures. “Preparing employees and organizations for the risks associated with active shooter events is a leadership issue,” Hart says. “The good news is that there are a lot of leaders out there in retail and retail associations who are continually developing their employees toward greater resiliency.”
Hart cites Gap and L Brands as companies “setting the example in retail on how to holistically approach the risks associated with active shooters.” On the state level, groups like the Retail Association of Maine and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts are “on the leading edge of developing best practice approaches for retail professional and public/private safety officers when dealing with active shooters,” he says.
NRF has led the industry’s efforts for years, working with the Department of Homeland Security and the International Council of Shopping Centers to develop active shooter guidelines first released in 2008 and updated in 2011. Following the Kenya incident, recently retired NRF Vice President for Loss Prevention Rich Mellor testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that “collaboration and partnership between retailers and law enforcement needs to remain strong and vigilant now more than ever.” In November, Mellor participated in an FBI “table top” exercise on how to respond to shootings and terror attacks held in Baltimore. Among those on hand was Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon, who several weeks later led the response to the January shooting in Columbia, Md.
There are also extensive activities among shopping center groups.
“Without a doubt, the Simon Property Group has set the gold standard on creating the most successful private/public partnership to mitigate the risk of active shooter events,” Hart says. Indianapolis-based Simon has taken the lead in facilitating large-scale regional training events and has “had tremendous success in establishing very effective relationships with mall tenants, local law enforcement and the surrounding communities.”
‘Communicate, contain, coordinate’
Much of the training stems from DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The training video “Run, Hide, Fight” was developed with the Houston Police Department.
While the attack in Kenya involving multiple shooters has not been replicated in this country, that does not mean preparations have not been made. The New York Police Department has made extensive plans for counterterrorist activities in Manhattan’s busy shopping districts, among other areas. The Los Angeles Police Department has developed a training program that addresses the threat of multiple terrorist active shooters called Multi-Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capabilities.
“While most active shooter crimes have been carried out by lone shooters, the threat of a terrorist cell using active shooter tactics is a clear and present danger,” says Hart.
Planning and incident awareness have taken root, notes Blair. When his team reviewed video surveillance footage from the incident at Garden State Plaza, they were “amazed.”
“The place looked empty,” he says. “People did a good job of doing what they were supposed to do.”
When there are attacks in malls, mall security is always the first on the scene. There are three things mall security should accomplish before police arrive, Hart says: communicate, contain and coordinate.
Communications includes using an appropriate mass notification system to alert store employees and customers. This could be a public address system announcement, a text alert or, preferably, both.
“This communications strategy is something that mall management and the security staff should already have planned for and practiced previously,” Hart says.
The importance of communication was pinpointed in an analysis of a shooting at Los Angeles International Airport last November, where there was no effective public address system available for warnings, emergency telephones failed to pinpoint the caller’s location and first responders used a variety of radio channels.
Thus, even though the shooter was taken down about seven minutes after police arrived, a Transportation Security Administration officer who was shot was not removed from the scene for more than half an hour.
“Containment, simply stated, is keeping store employees and shoppers away from the danger area,” Hart says. “This could mean advising customers who are arriving on property to leave, directing people to leave using appropriate primary or alternate exit points or directing people to hide in a location that offers adequate safety.”
“Mall security should coordinate with responding police so that adequate resources can be quickly delivered to the location of the active shooter,” Hart says. “Because active shooter situations are so dynamic, it is imperative that mall security use every available resource to direct police to the location of the active shooter. The two most common resources would be security camera systems and real-time reporting from security officers already on the scene.”
The primary mission of law enforcement officers responding to an incident is to locate and stop the shooter by gaining safe control, Hart explains. “Gaining safe control can mean locating the shooter and giving verbal commands to ‘give up’ or, in more extreme cases, it could mean using deadly force to eliminate the threat.”
Since this is the primary purpose of police on the scene, it is “critically important” that store employees and shoppers know the first responders are not there to provide medical attention to wounded individuals, he adds. “The good news is that the second wave of responding officers and paramedics are there to locate and triage anyone who may have been wounded.”
All of the active shooter incidents identified by Blair, Martaindale and Nichols, as well as others outside the scope of that study, have been analyzed by FEMA’s Learned Lessons Information Sharing office. One finding is that “controlling access to the scene by establishing perimeters and having a plan to manage impacted individuals alleviates security concerns and ensures response operation efficiency.”
Translating this into a retail context, Hart says the rise of shootings “should serve as a call to action for mall owners, retail organizations, local law enforcement and the surrounding communities. By adopting a ‘whole community’ approach supplemented with adequate training and practical safety measures, we can greatly enhance the shopping experience while also reducing the risks of active shooter events.”