Bound To Happen, Again

The Philippines is a country of malls. All big cities have shopping malls that are so huge they are called by names resembling their size. Three of the 10 largest malls in the world are found in the Philippines. While shopping malls or complexes in large countries are called as downtowns, we call them cities and town centers.  The gerrymandered Philippines is a Mall Republic.

Despite our low purchasing power, Pinoys still flock to malls for various reasons. It is estimated that 80 percent of Pinoys go to a mall at least once a month. Malls are much better social spaces than our plazas and government-maintained parks. Malls provide more hygienic food kiosks than the pushcarts in the streets. A different kind of crime, however, takes place in malls. Rarely is there a snatching incident that happens in the area. But pickpocketing does. Confidence scams like swindling or dugo-dugo are likewise committed especially in food courts and fancy restaurants inside the malls.

More people go to air-conditioned malls not to shop but to socialize and kill time. Recently, scorned lovers attempted and succeeded to kill their partners before killing themselves inside SM Malls. Last September 14, a distraught suicidal woman shot and killed her estranged husband and a security guard inside SM City North EDSA.

I went to two malls the day after the shooting to check if there were changes in security postures.  They did not overreact to wrong perceptions and attention from national police officers who were also reacting to media attention.

I successfully entered the malls thru the exit points (doors) and even had short talks with lady guards while they were waving their beeping metal detectors near the bags of mall goers. They chatted with me, unmindful of the beeps each time a bag is presented to them. None of them actually searched where the source of the beep came from. Never did a mall guard ask anyone what triggered the beep of their hand-held metal detectors. The use of metal detectors and the effortless frisking are all perfunctory on the part of the guard. They are not there to verify the bulges and search where the sources of the beeps are.

A television network interviewed me after the SM City North EDSA incident. I asserted that such incident will happen again.  I was patient with the questions asked by the young reporter but was really perplexed when his network executives questioned my credentials for making such assertions. The network even asked if I have been to a mall.

It did happen again.  A day after I made that statement. A 13-year-old boy shot his 16-year-old boyfriend inside SM City Pampanga last September 20. Both died days later after the .22 cal slugs severely and fatally damaged their brains.

I have said the similar incident will happen again in any mall in the country because of the following circumstances.

1. There are many ways to commit suicide

One can bring or buy a rope, knife, and poison. One can leap from the top floor or inhale carbon monoxide from the car exhaust while at the parking area. One can also jump over railings from top levels to the ground floor inside the malls or even from the highest level of car parks.

This happened several times already. Should we quickly blame mall security and management for not watching over the mall goers? I wouldn’t.

2. A determined criminal will always find means to execute his plan.

Both the unstable wife and the jilted lover knew that security was penetrable. They knew that their suicide plan will be successful. Premeditation is evident. They brought and used an unlicensed firearm to kill others and themselves.

One can buy knives, guns, poisons, arrows, or convert any merchandise from any store inside shopping complexes into a weapon to inflict harm on others or to himself.

3. Security concepts are not part of the design of malls, except for a few that I personally know of.

Before, malls are normally box-type, with entry and exit points at all four sides, and only the entry doors are being guarded. The exit doors are wide open.

The inspection areas are located inside the malls or a meter or two from the door. The new shopping complexes like Trinoma, Mall of Asia, Greenbelt, and SM North Edsa have several entry points which are wider and with open areas.

There are now more open-air entry points and pathways between buildings. What if the teenagers fulfilled their plans outside the mall doors but within its sidewalk? What if future incidents happen along the periphery of al fresco restaurants?

4. Security inspections are not customer-friendly when they create queuing and crowding.

Security guards, mindful of not creating a long queue of mall goers exposed to sweltering heat, will only conduct “cultural and socialized” inspection. They will scrutinize based on stereotyping.

Only the stereotyped looks of goons in movies are being frisked strictly. Who will think that a fair-looking woman or a teenager in school uniform carries a gun into a mall? Will the mall goers happily go through airport-like security checks?

5. Similar circumstances are bound to happen.

The distraught wife knew of her husband’s presence inside the mall as both used to work inside the mall. The teenagers decided to meet up inside the mall which they consider a convenient meeting place for their souring relationship. Mortal enemies may bump into each other, or a wife may catch the other woman inside a shopping complex. In contrast, consider the deadly shootout between a mall guard and an armed Games and Amusement Board employee. Both were killed inside a restroom in SM Iloilo Delgado.

6. No security system is 100% foolproof.

In our professional parlance, there is no such thing as “burglar-proof or crime-proof”. Among the chains of malls in the country, I can only attest to the professional management efforts towards security by Ayala Malls and SM Supermalls. Both have organized security departments and have been recruiting more officers, sending them to certification courses, and actively participating in meetings and seminars. The SOPs for agencies and training of guards are the “best effort” means to minimize, if not completely prevent, the occurrence of any security breaches. Still, guards are humans, bound to commit mistakes, lapses.

The use of guns changed the perception of the general public and even law enforcers on the incidents. The suicide angle was relegated to the background. The blame was on the lapses of a lone lady guard. The house detective that was killed did not get a hero’s burial. There was not much noise on illegal possession of firearms or proliferation of loose firearms.

The national government also issued their perfunctory statements on tightening mall security. The Philippine National Police, the Supervisory Office of Security and Investigation Agencies (SOSIA), the mayors, and even the President echoed the same calls.

I am aware that SOSIA and the Philippine Association of Detective and Protective Agency Operators, Inc. (PADPAO) have been working closely to professionalize the security guard industry. If not forced by media and national leadership pronouncements, perfunctory these maybe, the perspectives of SOSIA and PADPAO are similar to mine.  These are still isolated cases. There are 45 SM Malls nationwide, each with 10,000 people a day entering their doors.  From SecurityMatters’ research, we take a sample of 7 security breaches that have occurred inside SM Malls for the past 5 years. Roughly, 18 million people went through the guarded doors.

Our perception on mall security must also be changed. The landscape of malls has dramatically changed. We now have shopping complexes like Greenbelt, Trinoma, Bonifacio High Street, Eastwood Malls, and Greenhills. How can we prevent similar incidents with the porous, green, and open-air design concepts of new shopping complexes? Will the challenges to mall security management still be isolated cases?