Shopping malls present more security challenges than other public locations because of their large open spaces and multiple interior doorways that lead to restaurants and shops — dead-ends with no exterior exits, say security experts.
Shoppers at the American Dream mall found this out on April 7 as they scrambled for safety when gunshots rang out in the 3 million-square-foot complex in East Rutherford.
A 37-year-old man was shot multiple times in one of the country's biggest retail and entertainment complexes. The gunfire caused fear and confusion in shoppers and employees who were in the mall.
Most ran in search of exterior exits, and others found hiding places. Shoppers expressed their confusion on social media. Unlike schools, where students participate in emergency drills for active shooters, fires and many other scenarios, shoppers in malls are not clued in on the best action to take. They are on their own.
American Dream was shut down as police searched for the suspect or suspects. Most of the shoppers who had not exited the mall were hiding in shops that had quickly shut their doors. Many inside were looking to reunite with their children and other family members who were in other sections of the large mall.
New Jersey State Police called the American Dream mall shooting an "isolated incident" and assured the public there was no cause for concern. The next day the mall reopened with an increase in security and police.
The shooting victim was taken to a local hospital, where he was in serious but stable condition, New Jersey State Police Sgt. Alejandro Goez said. No arrests have been made and the incident remains under investigation, Goez said.
In the last decade, at least five other shooting incidents have taken place at malls around New Jersey. While a rare occurrence, the acts of violence send shockwaves through communities and keep mall and law enforcement officials alike searching for solutions to prevent tragedy.
So what are malls doing to keep their millions of visitors safe?
As local police find faster and more efficient ways to respond to shooting incidents in public spaces, mall officials have ramped up their security systems, responses and training.
Dan Kennedy, senior vice president of U.S. security operations at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, the owners of Garden State Plaza in Paramus, said he stays up at night thinking of worst-case scenarios that could happen at their 25 properties in the United States.
While most mall officials in the area said they could not disclose security information, emergency responses or training, Kennedy, who worked in law enforcement for 27 years, including time with the FBI, said Unibail is an open book when it comes to security. A playbook for "every potential crisis situation" exists, and new ones are created as needed.
“Our goal is for people who visit our properties to see visible security and feel a sense of safety,” he said. “They may not know all the behind work, drills and training, but rest assured all of that is in place.”
Garden State Plaza has one of the highest security budgets, he said. The mall underwent a massive electronic update, adding cameras to monitor the property around the clock. Training for employees and security at the mall includes what to do in an active shooter situation, fires, power outages, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Every year, all Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield properties undergo a security assessment, and twice a year they conduct active shooter and natural disaster training, Kennedy said. For Garden State Plaza, the security director works closely with Paramus first responders to coordinate training. At least once a month, if not weekly, the general manager and security directors meet with Paramus police to review security plans.
'Run, hide, fight'
“We focus on active shooter because of the rise of events in the country this last decade,” Kennedy said. “We work extremely close with the Paramus Police Department because safety is our number one priority.”
Every tenant at the Paramus mall is given information on the Department of Homeland Security protocol for active shooter situations, called “run, hide, fight.”
The International Council of Shopping Centers also released a seven-minute video on the “run, hide, fight” guidelines that Kennedy has implemented for his tenants and new employees.
At Garden State Plaza, all mall employees are asked to download an app for direct communication in real time. Kennedy said there is a 95% participation rate with employees in downloading the app. All general mall information can be found on the app, but in case of an emergency, quick alerts are sent out to let employees know what’s happening and instructions on what to do next.
Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and former chief of the Bergen County Police Department, agreed and stressed the importance of being prepared for a shooting or similar situation when visiting a mall, even though the chances of such an event remain very low.
If a shooting does happen, Higgins said, getting out of the building is the ideal first step for shoppers. If that is not possible, they should try to hide behind or under something and remember to silence their cellphones.
"You have to be very cautious. But I want to caution people not to be so nervous that when they go out, they don't enjoy life," Higgins said. "Statistically, most people will not be involved in an incident like this, but if one does, it can be very devastating."
In the past decade, people with armed guns entered local malls in plain sight, most recently at American Dream.
Last April, Paramus police arrested a 17-year-old from Lodi who they said carried a loaded pistol in a fanny pack at Garden State Plaza, which spans over 2 million square feet with 200 stores.
A man was arrested and charged in 2001 with firing six shots at a former co-worker in the Garden State Plaza parking lot.
Also last year, Ahmad Broadway of Jersey City was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement in a shooting at the Newport Centre mall in Jersey City after an argument in the food court over drug territory escalated to gunfire. The shots caused a stampede of people rushing toward the exits while many others found hiding spots in the 1.2 million-square-foot mall.
In 2018, on the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, a man was shot in the wrist at The Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth.
In 2013, a gunman dressed head to toe in black and wearing a black helmet fired shots in Garden State Plaza in Paramus just before closing time. Shoppers and employees were ordered to huddle behind locked doors in the mall’s stores, where they remained for hours.
Law enforcement response
When these incidents occurred, a number of law enforcement agencies descended on the malls and worked with mall security officials.
Higgins organized the response to the 2013 incident at Garden State Plaza as the 20-year-old shooter fired several rounds near other shoppers before fatally shooting himself.
"Because we are the center of these types of incidents, the United States is better prepared than other countries because we have to [be]," Higgins said. "But as far as we've gone, I still think we have some way to go."
During the American Dream shooting, multiple municipal departments responded, as did Bergen County police units before the New Jersey State Police took control of the investigation.
The response by law enforcement is not limited to a single agency. Usually, county teams follow, including sheriff’s office patrols and SWAT and emergency response teams, as they work to secure the scene.
In Morris County, home to Rockaway Townsquare mall, communication is key among departments, said Sheriff James Gannon. The relationships between departments are crucial to making sure responses are smooth and effective, he added.
“We never want to meet other organizations at the crime scene tape,” Gannon said. “That’s the secret sauce, having those relationships.”
He did not say how many officers would respond to an incident but generally "enough" would be deployed to a scene.
Rockaway Police Chief Martin McParland said when there is a response that requires multiple agencies, there is a hierarchy. Rockaway officers report to him and he reports to the Morris County Prosecutor's Office. Above that would be state police Col. Pat Callahan, who in turn reports to the state attorney general, the top-ranking law enforcement officer in the state.
If an active shooter incident appears to be terror-related, the FBI will get involved as well, McParland said. Rockaway has not had to respond to an active shooting within the township, he said.
“One of the things I’ve emphasized is cooperation of law enforcement at all levels,” Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll said. “Particularly when we have an active shooter situation.”
In such a situation, the first agency to respond is "almost always" the local police department, whose job is to stop the shooting as quickly as possible, Washington Township Police Chief Jeff Almer said. Subsequent responding officers, he said, are typically tasked with establishing a perimeter.
“We train extensively within the department,” Almer said. “Our officers’ primary goal the minute that comes in is to get to that scene and stop whatever incident is occurring.”
What can you do?
Each mall has a security plan in place for most emergencies, security experts said, but it is important for the visitors to plan for their own safety.
People need to be fully aware of their surroundings, Higgins said.
"If you hear what you believe to be shots, get yourself behind an item where preferably a bullet can't go through, or worst-case scenario you can't be seen," Higgins said.
Shoppers, especially parents with children, should have an emergency plan about where to meet if they become separated and whom to call when they are safe.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: After American Dream mall shooting, are malls safe? What experts say