As after-school hangouts and teen date-night destinations, malls across the country spend an average of $1.30 a square foot on security each year, pumping most of the money into a cadre of unarmed guards to protect shoppers and merchants.
That comes to a $1.3 million annual layout for a shopping center the size of Boynton Beach Mall. But industry experts say little can be done to prevent the kind of violence that erupted there Sunday when a man was killed in a suspected gang-related shooting near JCPenney.
Metal detectors are used at some malls in Israel and South America. Such intrusive devices aren't realistic in the United States because shoppers are likely to turn to the Internet if in-person browsing becomes too big a hassle, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York, which compiled the data on security spending.
"People will not shop where they do not feel safe and comfortable," Kavanagh said Tuesday. "And frankly, they have so many choices, they will go elsewhere." As shoppers returned to the Boynton mall Tuesday, a spokesman for mall owner Simon Property Group would not say whether the company had beefed up security but did say that metal detectors and frisking were not being considered.
"We don't provide details of the specific security measures, but I can just tell you that safety at our properties always has been our top priority," spokesman Les Morris said.
Simon hires private security guards to patrol all 170 of the Indianapolis-based company's enclosed malls, including Boynton, Town Center at Boca Raton, Treasure Coast Square in Jensen Beach and Palm Beach Mall in West Palm Beach.
The number of guards can vary widely depending on time of year, local crime statistics and other factors, said Jon Lusher, senior vice president with the Illinois-based mall security firm IPC International Corp., which handles security at about 400 shopping centers including the Mall at Wellington Green and CityPlace in downtown West Palm Beach.
CityPlace's image took a hit this year after high-profile incidents including a gunpoint robbery of magician David Copperfield and his party and the carjacking of a Delray Beach mother.
Still, violent crime tends to occur less frequently at shopping centers than other public venues, Lusher said, adding that the Boynton shooting was a rare exception.
"The crime rate at a shopping center really reflects its community," he said. "Places that are high-crime tend to have more crime everywhere in their community." Mall security guards are trained to look for unusual behavior, he said. Simon also relies on partnerships with law enforcement officers, who patrol most malls across the country.
"I would stress that our relationships with local law enforcement authorities are really important, and it's something (we pursue) not only when there's an incident like this," Morris said.
Local police usually have copies of mall floor plans and work with mall owners twice a year on evacuation drills, Kavanagh said. Boynton Beach police always have one officer assigned to the mall area, which includes other stores along the Congress Avenue corridor, investigator Suzanne Gitto said.
But in general, the shopping center is not a high-crime zone, she noted. "The mall's been pretty quiet," Gitto said. A partnership with law enforcement is central to security at the Mall at Wellington Green, owned by Taubman Centers Inc., based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
In addition to an undisclosed number of IPC International guards, deputies with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office regularly patrol its grounds, mall manager Larry Beermann said. Making security visible with uniformed officers and regular rounds is a priority, he said. He called the Boynton shooting an isolated incident. "I don't believe it's any less safe here today than it was a week ago," Beermann said.
Representatives of Southfield, Mich.-based The Forbes Co., which owns The Gardens mall in Palm Beach Gardens, could not be reached for comment. Many malls in the United States, including the Treasure Coast Square in Jensen Beach, have carved out space for law-enforcement substations, Kavanagh said.
"In a lot of communities, a mall can be the largest employer, it's the largest place where people congregate," he said. "So it does make sense to have a substation there." Boynton's mall doesn't have a substation, but some residents believe opening one could help deter violence.
In an e-mail sent Monday to City Manager Kurt Bressner and Assistant City Manager Wilfred Hawkins, Boynton Beach resident Ron Cummings said he plans to start shopping elsewhere if the mall doesn't get safer.
"The shopping public needs to feel safe. Build a police substation there if need be. Anything!" Cummings wrote. History shows mall violence doesn't deter all shoppers, however.
In November 2005, bauble-hunters swiftly returned to another Simon Property Group mall, Washington state's Tacoma Mall, days after a gunman wounded six and took several people hostage.
"Black Friday was packed there a year ago," Morris said of the big shopping day after Thanksgiving. "They had big crowds and it rebounded quickly, in fact. I don't know that there was even a dropoff."