Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK: More sophisticated cameras. Security robots. Customers feeling shaken by recent attacks at U.S. malls may not notice huge changes — but mall operators are testing and putting in place new technologies and other measures to offer people more protection without intruding too much on their shopping time.

Mall executives say shoppers have been adamantly opposed to airport security tactics like metal detectors. So they’re trying other things, and increasingly using mass notifications that let them send text and email alerts to tenants within seconds in case of a crisis.

Concerns about safety have been heightened by the attacks. Those included a shooting in the makeup area of a Macy’s store near Seattle, where five people died, as well as stabbings at a Minnesota mall where 10 people were injured before a police officer shot the assailant.

Justin Dye, 41, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., said he has felt more on edge when he goes to his local mall.

“You’re not paranoid. But you are alert of the people around you,” he said. The father of two said he now looks for where the exits are, and in a store he scouts for dressing rooms or back offices should he need to hide. “I’m always thinking about if something could happen, where would I go, and what should I do?” he said.

The recent attacks are “awful tragedies” and at the top of retailers’ minds, said Lisa LaBrunoof the Retail Industry Leaders Association trade group. She was attending an already-scheduled meeting about security this week with store executives. “They are committed to reassessing the situation and identifying ways in which they can mitigate risks.”

Still, she and other industry experts acknowledge that mall and store operators don’t have much control over actually stopping any incident from happening. They do say they hope to minimize any threat and focus on keeping people safe.

Shopper preferences

Shopper surveys done every April by the International Council of Shopping Centers show that people aren’t interested in metal detectors or similar tactics, the trade association said. “They don’t want to be impeded as they go about their lives,” said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the mall association.

The mall group spent $2 million to develop terrorism training programs after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., and shopping centers have made more changes since then. A 2007 shooting in Omaha, Neb, when a 19-year-old man fatally shot eight people was an impetus for malls to alter their approach. Malls began working with the Homeland Security Department on plans for first responders to enter the building to try to stop the shooter, rather than wait for backup as had been the practice.

Enhanced training

In the past two years, retailers and malls have offered enhanced training for workers — some use videos of active-shooter scenarios; others have store associates act out the parts. At Macy’s, for example, active shooter training has been a requirement for all employees since 2014. Mall operators are also running more evacuation drills, and are collaborating with police departments that may train at malls when they’re closed.

Technology is key too, though experts say there isn’t one single thing that can thwart an attack.

Kavanagh says Homeland Security officials are working with malls on testing cameras with facial recognition that can detect people with criminal records and also cameras that read license plates and send alerts if a criminal or someone on a terrorist watch is around. DHS is also looking at creating virtual walls in open spaces to block drones with weapons, he said.

Security robots made by startup Knightscope read license plates, can identify a vehicle parked in a certain location for too long or sense intruders at odd hours. The company expects to have several mall developers in California start using the robots this year.