GW University launches mall guard anti-terror course

Published 4 January 2007

DC school teams up with International Council of Shopping Centers to improve security guard training; students learn about WMDs and how to identify suicide bombers; critics say high industry turn-over rates doom the project to failure; do malls really qualify as critical infrastructure?

Whether or not one believes shopping malls constitute critical infrastructure may depend on how one feels about Nordstroms’s gernerous return policies, but there can be little doubt that any place that attracts dense crowds may be a ripe target for terrorism. It should be no surprise then that the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group, has teamed up with the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University (GW) to develop a standardized anti-terrorism curriculum for America’s 20,000 mall security guards. Considering the low barriers to entry in that profession, no doubt some extra training is in order.

The 14-hour program, which cost $2 million to create, covers a wide (perhaps too wide) a range of threats. Students learn about the characteristics of the nerve agent sarin and other weapons of mass destruction, and they learn techniques commonly in use by Israeli mall guards to identify suicide bombers by their typically unseasonable dress. The program is being tested at a handful of shopping centers in the Washington, D.C. metro area and is planned to be rolled out over the next six months. “Security is really paramount in large enclosed malls. These events, when you respond to them, you make or break it in the first 20 minutes.” said Paul M. Maniscalco of GW.

Of course, the program has its critics, all of whom point out that the guard industry suffers from extremely high turnover rates — most leave the job within a year, many within four months — meaning that the education is mostly wasted on the already disinterested. Moreover, a good argument can be made that emphasizing security in any particular place of general interest is a waste of resources. “There is no justification for this,” said Ian S. Lustick, a frequent critic of homeland security policy. “It’s too diffuse a problem. There’s a security problem in any public place. The retail industry and shopping malls is just one little part of that.”

-read more in Ylan Q. Mui’s Washington Post report