Sounding Board: Taking proper precautions

In the wake of recent violence, retailers need to be more aware of the ways to increase safety for customers and employees. 

Len LewisThere is no such thing as total security—especially in a retail environment. It is a sobering thought in the wake of the bombings in Boston and the shootings in Newtown, Conn. that someone intent on doing violence will find a way.

I thought twice about doing this column. This is a sensitive subject and people are tired of headlines that seem to revel in this senseless violence and highlight our vulnerability. Reality is too much with us these days. But it is, I am sorry to say, the new normal and far from the days when all you had to do was put up a sign saying, “shoplifters will be prosecuted.”

However, do we stick our heads in the sand, wring our hands and let someone else deal with it or take the initiative to keep customers and employees safe? The answer may be obvious but not easy. It is a matter of going about it in a way that will not put anyone in danger and avoids costly and demoralizing lawsuits by victims and sometimes, the perpetrators.

Some feel it comes down to surveillance—electronic and otherwise. But the American Civil Liberties Union, with its Big Brother argument, has successfully lobbied against turning on surveillance cameras.

More often than not, retail security is about what happens in a store. Here, we are looking at three scenarios: stores within the confines of a shopping center or mall, stores on a main street and freestanding stores surrounded by parking lots. Experts will tell you that the security protocols are very different for each. This is why loss prevention should be partnering with law enforcement to assess security gaps.

Not that any situation is less dangerous than another, but the one retailers fear most is the “active shooter” scenario, exacerbated by local and state laws that allow people with and without permits to carry concealed weapons. This is not about the moron who accidentally discharged his handgun in the bathroom of a North Carolina Walmart last year.

The incident that really got retailers’ attention was the murder/suicide at the Westroads Mall in 2007. This is the one that resulted in Homeland Security crafting a specific policy on how to respond in these situations. This detailed booklet is available online and frankly should be required reading (http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/active_shooter_booklet.pdf).

Then, there are companies like Cap Index, which produces maps and reports for companies and government agencies to identify “foreseeable” crime risks. Unfortunately, some things are not foreseeable.

As noted, there are different protocols for different situations. Yet, if there is one common denominator in all this it is to avoid confronting a shooter unless someone’s life is in imminent danger. That is a judgment call I would rather not make. In most cases, it is a matter of hiding and gathering information for law enforcement such as the location and number of shooters, their physical description, number and types of weapons and the number of potential victims held by them and, finally, calling 911 when it is safe to do so.

Allowing employees or shoppers to carry guns into stores might seem like a deterrent. But it is a Pandora’s box of confusing and often contradictory federal, state and local laws.

For example, it may be legal for an employee to carry a concealed weapon, but that same person can be terminated by the company if they used it to prevent a crime.  On the other hand, some states—like Texas and Florida—say carrying a weapon is a not a condition of employment and cannot be prohibited.

In the final analysis, you are inviting people into your stores and you want them to feel safe. There is no shortage of resources that can help and, without sounding alarmist, I would encourage everyone to use them.  As the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke said: “All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

Over two centuries later, little has changed.

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