Mall security heightened during holidays

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Richard Descoteaux eyes a rush of shoppers on a recent afternoon near the Mall of Georgia food court, directing security officers on Segway personal transporters. The officers quietly weave the crowd like agents from a future society.

The Segways float along at 6 mph -- plenty quick for catching crooks.

"It's a little more than twice as fast as a person can walk," says Descoteaux, director of security at the sprawling mall that, in terms of acreage, is the largest in the Southeast.

Clamping down on crime is a big job here -- what with 200-plus retailers and some 8,300 parking spaces to look after. Descoteaux is confident his fleet -- two Segways, an electric GEM car resembling a space-age golf cart, three SUVs and a larger, chariot-like personal transporter called a T-3 -- and his security officers are up to the task.

But the responsibility of mall safety this holiday season doesn't fall on security alone.

"We're asking the public to be more aware of their surroundings, to be vigilant," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli.

A double stabbing the morning of Black Friday in the food court of Gwinnett Place Mall heightened concerns that criminals are brushing shoulders with mall patrons during the high-tide of holiday shopping. The non-fatal stabbings were perpetrated by teenage gang members, police said.

"I was at the mall when this took place, and I was thinking, 'Wow, we can't even have one day without violence in this world,'" a woman identified as April wrote on the Post's Web site, in reaction to the story.

Police and mall security heads stress that such incidents are uncommon, and that security is heightened when it needs to be. No other major incidents have been reported at area malls since, police said Friday.

"It is a large security force and a sophisticated security force," said Joe Piccolo, the general manager of security at Gwinnett Place Mall and Mall of Georgia. "We take a lot of precautions."

Piccolo wouldn't disclose specific numbers of security officers -- both privately contracted personnel and off-duty police -- or the hours they work.

"We always keep that pretty close to our vest," he said.

Piccolo did stress that officers man the malls around the clock, backed by closed-circuit cameras that are perpetually recording. Officer numbers are bolstered during the holidays, he said.

Mall tenants are responsible for providing security inside stores, where the broader security forces have no arrest powers. Beyond mall parking lots -- or when someone calls 911 -- matters fall in the jurisdiction of county and municipal police.

To maximize security, Piccolo said his security forces strategize with police leaders in preparation for the holidays.

"It behooves us to coordinate with them," Piccolo said.

Schiralli said budgetary constraints have forced police officials to scrap the department's Holiday Task Force this year. It usually entails about six extra police officers at Gwinnett's primary shopping malls on a voluntary basis. The department couldn't afford to pay officers overtime this year, Schiralli said.

Instead, officers are being borrowed from special operation forces like gang, crime suppression and motor units "to fill the gaps," Schiralli said. He was unsure if the change had led to a drop in police protection near malls.

"It all depends on what they can spare at the time," he said. "We try to put as many (officers) as we can in those areas."