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Galleria amps up security – discreetly

But how does it prevent another arson?
By: Lien Hoang, The Press Tribune
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As information about the Westfield Galleria arson unfolds – or doesn’t unfold – some details are generally acknowledged: Alexander Piggee allegedly entered a GameStop the morning of Oct. 21, claimed to have a bomb and gun, and used undisclosed materials to set the building ablaze.

In the disaster’s wake, the Galleria hired scores of new security personnel, cracked down on suspicious acts and performed emergency-scenario drills, according to unnamed mall security sources.

The response indicates a possibly overlooked disconnect.

On the one hand, increased vigilance inevitably follows any catastrophe – the public would be rightly surprised if Galleria officials did nothing differently.

On the other hand, the mall’s stricter security does not clearly prevent future repeats.

A Piggee wannabe could still take a backpack inside the mall. He could still make unfounded threats. He could still ignite a $55 million inferno.

Now, the October arson – paired with the holidays’ increased mall traffic and crime –intensifies an ongoing question: Short of a police state, how far should officials go to protect shoppers?

Hike up surveillance? Install metal detectors? Set up a police satellite office?

Don’t expect any official answers from the Galleria. When the Press Tribune approached a mall security guard to ask about public safety, he checked with his supervisor by radio:

“That’s a negative,” came over the walkie talkie.

The voice referred reporters to Galleria spokespeople, who said in a statement, “for obvious reasons, Westfield doesn’t comment on security policies or practices.”

They would not elaborate on the reasons, though the most obvious is to avoid giving criminals sensitive information – not that Piggee seemed privy to any intelligence that facilitated the worst crime in the mall’s 10-year history.

Their own reservations notwithstanding, Galleria officials encouraged the Press Tribune to call Arden Fair Mall.

Steve Reed has earned a reputation for proactive openness in his decade helming Arden security. He schmoozes reporters, standing front and center for every break-in, stabbing or vehicle theft that demands questions. He boasts about the shopping center’s $2 million camera system, its $100,000 from Homeland Security to read stolen car’s license plates and its three dozen officers on duty.

His approach is of the knowledge-is-power variety. That is, shoppers have knowledge to feel protected, and criminals have knowledge to think twice before committing an offense.

“I market security,” the retired Sacramento policeman said of his advances to the media.

Reed’s guards carry handcuffs and pepper spray, but no guns or batons. In the Galleria fire’s aftermath, Reed upped the presence of hired, off-duty Sacramento police at Arden.

Roseville police don’t have the same relationship with the Galleria, beyond standard patrols throughout the city. But police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said they’ve thrown around the idea of posting officers at a small room in the mall.

Day-to-day statistics from police, though, don’t indicate much need for the outpost. So far this year, police have responded to calls at the Galleria 66 times per month, on average. A third are for shoplifting, and in the overwhelming majority of those cases, mall security have a culprit ready for arrest.

As tightlipped as the Galleria has been, its security officers – managed by Professional Security Consultants – described heightened measures after Oct. 21. Speaking anonymously for fear of losing their jobs, guards said the mall expanded security in the neighborhood of 90 new sentries. Among other duties, they patrol construction areas and shield the merchandise of closed shops to deter theft.

One of the recent hires said that in late November, a backpack abandoned under a mall bench sent dozens of emergency responders into a flurry. It turned out to be innocuous.

“You can’t get away with anything anymore,” the guard said.

That seems all right by some shoppers.

Rod and Noreen Babb visited the Galleria last week for the first time after the fire. She was initially afraid to return. He wished security more resembled Arden’s, but complimented officials for the safe evacuation in October.

“I think security must have done a terrific job,” he said.

The day was also Christina Carter’s first return to the mall. She wasn’t impressed with how guards handled Piggee two months ago, and she wasn’t impressed with their presence now. Carter suggested the introduction of metal detectors.

“If you have something to hide in your belonging, you probably shouldn’t bring it with you,” Carter said.

In using metal detectors, malls pose a unique quandary because they are public but enclosed and dense, and therefore easy targets.

The detectors share similarities with store alarms, which have become unnoticed in their ubiquity. But the extra hassle and stigmatized atmosphere that comes with metal detectors make them an extreme, unlikely addition to malls. What’s more, detectors alone would do nothing to bar, say, matches and an accelerant in the hands of a Piggee copycat.

Lien Hoang can be reached at lienh@goldcountrymedia.com.