Reassessing cinema security in the wake of Colorado's movie theater massacre
AURORA, Colo.—Not all the details of Friday's shooting in this Denver suburb are known yet, but the discussion has already begun about how the rampage—which left 12 dead and nearly 60 wounded—will impact security at movie theaters across the country.
One security expert told Security Director News that the massacre could be a Virginia Tech for movie theaters, causing security to become a bigger part of the conversation and more stringent security procedures to be adopted at theaters across the country.
Theaters and law enforcement agencies across North America have started announcing precautions they're taking after the shooting. The New York Police Department deployed officers to all theaters in the five boroughs screening the new Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” as a precaution against “copycats and to raise the comfort levels among movie patrons,” according to The New York Times. Ticket takers at a theater in Washington searched movie-goers' bags and purses, and the Los Angeles Police Department is posting undercover officers inside movie theaters, according to the Associated Press. Cineplex Entertainment, Canada’s largest theater chain, told Time magazine in a statement that “the safety and security of our guests remains our top priority, and while we believe this was an isolated incident, we have security measures in place for our upcoming shows.”
But what are those security measures?
The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) issued a statement addressing the event and hinting that new security measures could become common in the movie theater business: "We are grateful for the quick and effective response by police and emergency personnel. Guest safety is, and will continue to be, a priority for theater owners. NATO members are working closely with local law enforcement agencies and reviewing security procedures."
Patrick Corcoran, NATO's spokesman, did not respond to additional questions from SDN seeking details about what kind of security best practices exist in movie theaters and how those might change.
At least one security expert thinks the event will have a significant impact on movie theater security. Jeff Slotnick CPP PSP, president of the security consulting firm Setracon Inc. and chairman of ASIS International's Physical Security Council, told SDN it could permanently change the security paradigm at these types of venues.
"Unfortunately, as a society we seem to take the path of least resistance, and people don't like change, they don't like inconvenience, they don't like the extra expense, and then something like this happens that forces the change," Slotnick said.
He said he wouldn't be surprised if large movie chains started hiring security professionals to help them develop more robust security procedures and training programs. It may even be time, Slotnick said, that the very large chains with hundreds of theaters hire a security director or CSO at the executive level to address the risks and losses that the businesses face.
Looking at the Colorado shooting from a purely physical security perspective, Slotnick said some sort of notification or alarm system should have sounded when an emergency exit, such as the one the suspect is said to have propped open and used to re-enter the theater, was left open for an extended period of time. "If this door was propped open for more than a minute, then somebody should have been notified by some sort of physical security system," he said.
Training of front-line staff at venues that deal with large numbers of people, such as movie theaters, should also be a bigger priority, Slotnick said. They should be trained on emergency response plans and to recognize suspicious and hostile behavior. "I don't know that they didn't do this [at the Colorado theater], but it sounds like there wasn't a lot there," he said.
But the training resources are there, and they're free. The Department of Homeland Security last year released a free active-shooter guide. FEMA Independent Studies has a free course on active shooter scenarios and workplace violence. ASIS International has a collection of active shooter resources.
“The private security profession has been dealing with the active shooter protocols for some time. Most corporate security programs now cover some sort of training and awareness of these types of unfortunate situations," said Mitchell Fenton CPP, chair of ASIS International's Hospitality, Entertainment, and Tourism Security Council. "Being aware of your surroundings, having an evacuation plan in mind at all times can go a long way in mitigating these types of threats. And as always if you see something, say something to someone in authority such as security or the police.”
Beyond the physical security of the movie theater, Slotnick believes the event speaks to two larger issues: the failed mental health system in the country, and the fact that "most citizens of the United States walk around blind and happy until an incident happens, and then it's, 'Oh my goodness, how did that happen?'"
Combating that common apathy is the goal of DHS’ "See Something, Say Something" campaign, Slotnick said, and it's time that people started taking it seriously. "We don't pay attention in our society," he said. "I think it's very important that we start paying attention, that we start being good citizens, that we start taking responsibility for not just our safety, but the safety of our neighbors."
Slotnick pointed out that somebody must have seen the suspect before the shooting, whether it was while he was buying a movie ticket or propping open the emergency door during the film. "Somebody saw this person and didn't say anything," he said.
In an active-shooter event, statistics show that somebody dies every 15 seconds, Slotnick said. In Aurora, the time between when the first 911 call was received and when law enforcement arrived at the theater was about 59 seconds, he said. "It was an amazing response time," Slotnick said. "What could have been done differently? Well, if somebody would have seen the suspicious activity that was a precursor to this and called 911 to report this suspicious activity, we may have pre-empted the attack."
Hindsight is 20/20, but looking forward it's clear that for at least the time being, security at movie theaters will be an ongoing topic of discussion and debate.