Security under fire: Mall of America's security director Doug Reynolds speaks

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Monday, September 26, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Minn.–Earlier this month, NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting published several stories that accused security at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., of racial profiling and supplying "intelligence spam" to local, state and federal law enforcement. The reports were based on suspicious activity reports filed by the mall's own behavior detection officers with local and state law enforcement.

Mall of America's security director Doug Reynolds was not interviewed for the NPR and CIR stories, but he took the opportunity to speak with Security Director News about the accusations of racial profiling and the mall's behavior detection officers, part of its Risk Assessment and Mitigation counterterrorism group.

Below, Reynolds, an Army veteran, who started at the mall in 1996 as a part-time dispatcher and worked his way up to become security director in 2006, tells SDN how he helped develop the Mall’s security program over the last decade, and why he believes it should be a model for other retail outlets in North America. Further, he discusses how he believes NPR reporters missed the mark in their reporting of the story.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

SDN: Give me a brief overview of the security system at Mall of America.

Reynolds: We see approximately 42 million people a year go through our doors, and as director of security I'm responsible for maintaining safety and order in that environment ... We have traditional security,  uniformed patrol presence ...  along the way we've also invested a lot of money in additional training for our patrol officers, dispatchers and many other positions ... Many of us within the department have a military background and understand the value of training upfront and that it pays huge dividends. And we will invest eight- to 12-weeks in [training] an individual patrol officer before they ever take a call on their own. That's unusual in the industry.

How did security at Mall of America change after 9/11?

Initially, we closed on Sept. 11 because we didn’t know how widespread the situation was going to be, but we were open on the 12th. We had Mall of America employees at every entrance and in every courtyard for people to see ... That was one of first changes we made. We understood people want to be comfortable and know somebody is there.

We  [also]  started looking at technological solutions. We evaluated [facial recognition] and decided it was not a good fit for us ... We increased our camera coverage by about 20 percent at that time. We started looking at areas that could be or should be controlled and how we were controlling them–restricted access areas, that sort of thing [We rewrote our emergency action plan, and started building our canine team].

Tell me about the mall's Risk Assessment and Mitigation counterterrorism unit.

We looked at different [behavior profiling] programs that were out there and the one we liked was going on at Ben Gurion [International] Airport in Tel Aviv. They didn't always have behavior profiling there. They used to do a different type of profiling, which was racially based. And they had a horrible incident where the [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] teamed up with a Japanese Red Army group and they came in and conducted a terrorist attack and they weren't looking for people of Japanese descent to conduct an attack. If you're not Middle Eastern they thought you were not a concern. That showed them quickly that that type of profiling doesn't work, that if you are going to do [profiling], it needs to be behavior-based and nothing else. So we looked at that. We brought in a gentleman who has worked at Ben Gurion International Airport doing behavior profiling … to develop a program for Mall of America and he had a concept of how it worked in Israel but I wanted, if you will, to Americanize it. And that's what we did. We started that in 2005.

Tell me about the NPR story and your initial reaction to it.

I had a few initial reactions. It started with NPR teaming up with another group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and my concern was some of the past articles [from CIR] seemed to be very skewed and did not seem to be very balanced. They seemed to definitely go into it with an agenda. It's hard, when somebody is entrenched in their way of thinking, to believe you're going to be fairly represented.

I knew they had requested this information and that they were going to be looking at our reports because they requested them through the state of Minnesota and through the city of Bloomington. We knew they were going to do this, so when they contacted us about the story, honestly I was not eager to do the story. I wasn't comfortable with the reporter, but that having been said, we’ve always been good about relationships with the media and saying 'hey we have a good program here and we're confident in it.' We don't want to hide the program. We brought this program up in the media on any number of occasions. I testified in front of Congress that this is a good program and this is something the U.S. should look at if they're looking to protect large-scale facilities.

What was your reaction to the final product of their reporting?

Some of the statistics they came up with just didn’t match anything we had and when we tried to correct them they just didn’t seem like they were receptive. Honestly, I have nothing to hide. I am very confidant in the program. We audit it all the time. If you look at how many interviews we did last year–we talked to 1,400 people that came to Mall of America, which may seem like a large number [until] you consider that 42 million people a year come to Mall of America. I think they were making a big deal out of something that is truly not a big deal.

When you look at some of the cases I didn't feel they were fairly representing all the information in those cases. One of the things they did, which I hope readers looked at, was they attached the [suspicious activity] reports. If you read the actual reports that were submitted, you'd see that there are more to them. One example is, [NPR] talked to one gentleman who left his cell phone, and that was the whole [gist] of the story: Why would you talk to somebody who just left their cell phone behind on a table? If you read the report, you find he left a cell phone, two coolers, a box and that he had done this on other occasions. I think that is somebody worth talking to.

The claim NPR and CIR made was that Mall of America's RAM officers were racially profiling. What's your reaction to that?

I think if you look at their own numbers, they don't support some of their documents. We've looked at it: The number one person that we stop out here and talk to is a Caucasian male. That's certainly not racial profiling if it's Caucasian males we talk to most often. That's not by design; that's how the statistics work out.

NPR is a national news outlet and the stories got a fair amount of play in the media. What kind of challenges did that create for security when that type of press comes out with those types of accusations?

The challenge is that we have an obligation to keep guests safe and if we have a good program in place to do that, even when it's being challenged, I need to understand this is a good program, it's there for good reasons and I can't suspend the program or stop it just because someone wrote a biased one-sided article. If the program really has integrity, if it's a good program with good people doing good things, then we're going to continue doing it because at the end of the day there are 42 million people every year counting on us to protect them.

What kind of lessons did you learn as far as being a security director and dealing with the media?

If you are going to be a security director and a leader, you need to look towards your people. So I wanted to make contact with my people right away, and say 'hey, here's what 's coming, here's how we think it's going to be written, here's what we've learned and what we may do differently and I want to let you know we still support what you do,' and ensure them that they did nothing wrong and they were doing exactly what they were trained to do and that we still support that program.

I think the other piece that was important [is] the people we protect, the public, and letting them know why this program exists. We started pitching additional stories to the media. We've been open to doing that for many years but this certainly gave us cause to go out and pitch it more.

What's your advice to other security directors when it comes to dealing with the media? If the media comes calling, should security directors be open to those requests or has this experience made you more wary?

There was a time that by default we didn't talk to the media. And we've really done a 180 with that. The media is a tool. It's a way of getting your message out there. People are going to talk and if you don’t give them the information, they're going to form their own opinions about how things are going, their own assumptions. I would say it's almost always better to talk to the media and get your message out then to ignore them. I was disappointed in the way they chose to write this story. If they wouldn't have come into it with an idea or notion in their head of how it was going to be before the interviews, I think they could have a had a really good story about a program that's successful and should be modeled, I believe, through the rest of the U.S.

Anything else to add?

When we started this program we understood it's not a common program, there are not a lot of entities in the U.S. that do it. So when it was a week old I told my bosses and the ownership that at some point this will be challenged, but the best thing you can do is prepare for that in advance. We kept statistics on who it is we were stopping, we kept detailed reports on why we were interviewing people and that type of thing, with the assumption that some day somebody would want to see that. If you can do that, if you know you have a good program and it's being done for the right reason, then you should be able to provide that information, keep track of it and feel comfortable with it. At the end of the day, if you can put your head down on your pillow and close your eyes comfortably, you know you're doing the right thing.

Comments

Well if folks from various ethnic backgrounds quit ripping people off they would not be scrutinized. Where do you draw a line? Catch the thieves or be politically correct?

The point unanswered is all those folks stopped, for doing nothing other visiting mall to shop; end up reported to Homeland Security and or FBI. I just had the pleasure of being "interviewed" by MOA police. It's unnerving, they tacitily threaten...and detain for hours. In my case, they seperated me from my 12 year son and questioned us both, demanding to inspect my phone, and asking very personal question of both of us. When i asked for indentification, none of the officers (including the supervisor, sgt Wheeler) would provide...saying hers hadn't been printed yet? Word is getting out, this kind of "cival rights be damned" security...is bad for business. Today, I'd say there were at least 100 uniformed security just around the 1st floor rotunda alone. If you stood around more than 15 seconds, you were asked to move on. They had everyone moving in a big circle...not an enjoyable way to shop. Sure, MOA is big, but there's nothing unique in there that you can't find someplace else...and not be bothered for doing so.