From a basement dispatch center to ‘behavior detection’ officers, a look at Mall of America security
With a 19-year-old fatally shot in the mall in December, an incident of shots-fired in August, and two people wounded in a 2021 New Year’s Eve shooting, questions arose about the mall’s security.
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Walk into America’s largest mall and you’ll see visible signs of security: officers patrolling on foot and bicycle, K-9s and surveillance cameras.
Then, there’s another whole layer of security that’s invisible to most Mall of America visitors — a room of staff who monitor surveillance cameras in real time and can dispatch security officers, an intelligence analyst looking at what people are posting publicly on social media about MOA, and plain-clothes “behavior detection” officers.
The Mall of America gave journalists a behind-the-scenes tour of security Friday because they want the public to know about all the efforts they’re not seeing, said Will Bernhjelm, MOA’s vice president of security.
With a 19-year-old from St. Paul fatally shot in the Bloomington mall in December, an incident of shots-fired in August, and two people wounded in a 2021 New Year’s Eve shooting, some people have been asking about the mall’s security measures. But Bernhjelm said they mostly want to pull the curtain back “because it’s time that we share our story. … It’s a unique approach to security and it’s not being done this broadly anywhere else.”
Looking at new measures
Most of what Bernhjelm highlighted Friday has long been in place at the mall, but MOA is also looking at new measures. They’re “actively pursuing” expanding the mall’s K-9 program to include firearm detection dogs, he said.
Though the mall tested metal detectors at one entrance last year, they determined detectors are “not a good fit for our facility,” Bernhjelm said. When the mall opened in 1992, it was not designed with metal detectors in mind. There are 27 public entrances and, unlike venues that host a relatively limited number of events, the mall is open 363 days a year and up to 16 hours a day.
The mall also conducted testing last fall for a gunshot detection system, along the lines of ShotSpotter, and they’re evaluating whether they’d add such a system. Another consideration is using, in conjunction with security cameras, a facial recognition program; Bernhjelm said they don’t use facial recognition now.
It’s a busy time of year at the mall with people visiting during spring break. About 32 million people visit MOA annually. That’s lower than pre-COVID times and international travelers haven’t returned to their previous levels, but communications director Laura Utecht said they haven’t seen fewer people coming to the mall after shootings.
“These high profile events that happen out there are tragic — we don’t want them to happen, nobody does,” Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges said Friday. “But the people are caught.” Several people have been charged with the fatal shooting of Johntae Hudson in Nordstrom during the busy Christmas shopping season.
Bloomington police statistics specific to MOA weren’t available Friday, but Hodges said crime overall in the suburb is at a four-year low.
Security before entering the mall
Bernhjelm said he thinks of the mall’s security systems like slices of Swiss cheese. “For every layer, there is a hole,” Bernhjelm said. “There’s no such thing as 100% security. … But the more layers built in, the less chance that all of those holes line up at once.”
The first layer of security starts before anyone enters the building. Mall security officers on bicycles patrol the parking ramps and building’s exterior, whether it’s snowing or 90 degrees.
“They’re looking for people that might have intended to steal a vehicle or break into a vehicle,” Bernhjelm said. They also handle about 1,700 “vehicle locates” a year, helping people who can’t remember where they parked.
The mall’s intelligence analyst also starts before people walk in the building, and his work is proactive.
“You would be absolutely amazed at what people put on social media these days,” Bernhjelm said. There was an instance of someone who posted something along the lines of, “I’m going to the mall today and I’m going to go steal a bunch of jeans. What sizes do people need?”
The analyst works with law enforcement and private security companies.
Another non-visible layer of security outside the mall is license-plate readers, which are posted on vehicle entry areas. They’re owned and operated by Bloomington police. If someone driving a stolen vehicle pulls into a mall parking ramp, the license-plate reader triggers an alert that goes to police.
From police to security to behavior detection
The Bloomington Police Department has a storefront office in the mall and a dozen officers comprise their MOA unit.
“The biggest difference is the officers are there to deal with crimes and the mall is there to enforce mall rules,” Hodges said. Stores also hire off-duty Bloomington officers to work at their businesses.
The mall’s uniformed security officers respond to about 1,500 reports of lost children a year; that number used to be upwards of 4,000, but has decreased as kids get cell phones at younger ages, Bernhjelm said. Security also responds to about 1,000 reports of people creating a disturbance or acting disorderly, and about 600 medical problems or emergencies.
MOA doesn’t give out the specific number of security officers, but Bernhjelm said they’re comparable to the Bloomington police department. There are 124 Bloomington police officers, according to the police chief.
The mall’s security officers, who aren’t sworn peace officers, get more than 500 hours of training before they respond to a call by themselves. The national standard for such security officers is around 40 hours, Bernhjelm said.
They carry Tasers, pepper spray, batons, handcuffs and medical gloves. They’re going to be outfitted with body cameras in the next month or so.
There are uniformed security officers who primarily work Friday and Saturday nights to enforce the mall’s curfew, which has been in place since 1996. The curfew has changed through the years, but the current policy is that youth under 16 have to be accompanied by an adult 21 or older from 3 p.m. to close every day.
MOA also employs “behavior detection officers” who aren’t in uniform. They’re “solely trained in suspicious behavior, vehicles and objects,” Bernhjelm said.
For example, if they see a man pacing in an entrance, acting nervous and sweating, “they need to figure out why he’s acting that way,” Bernhjelm said. “Is he here because he has harmful intentions? Or is he here because he’s meeting his Tinder date for the first time?” They would approach the man, identify themselves as a security officer and talk to him.
MOA has six explosive-detection K-9s, which receive the same national certification as police dogs.
Dispatch center is ‘backbone’
The mall has its own dispatch center in the basement. It’s “very similar to a 911 call center,” Bernhjelm said. Staff answers calls, monitors security radios, dispatches security officers and watches the mall’s surveillance cameras.
The mall, with 5.6 million square feet of property, has a large surveillance camera system, though MOA doesn’t disclose how many.
Security officers handle about 84,000 calls for service each year and dispatchers are “the backbone to that,” Bernhjelm said.
If the mall has to put a lockdown in place, which has happened three times since December 2021, it’s initiated with a push of a button in the dispatch center.
As people shopped on Friday, they had different perspectives on safety.
“Especially nowadays, with a lot that’s been happening in the world, it’s a pressing issue” in big places or big crowds, said 18-year-old Chandler Dant, of Menno, S.D., who was on a senior band trip. He said he loved seeing the variety of what MOA had to offer.
Melissa Cruse, who’s from the Eau Claire, Wis., area, said it was her first time back to the mall since she was 17; she was shopping with her 22-year-old niece, Olivia Steube, who had never visited before.
“I’m with them, so I’m fine, but if I was alone I would” have safety worries, Steube said.
“She’s a tiny little thing,” Cruse said. “But I didn’t have any” concerns.
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