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Questions linger after thwarted abduction at Fashion Square www.privateofficer.com
Albemarle County VA Nov 28 2012 Private security did its job over the weekend in escorting a man off Fashion Square mall property where he grabbed a 2-year-old girl before her father wrestled her away, legal experts and industry analysts said Monday.
But that doesn’t explain why authorities weren’t notified until more than five hours later, when the girl’s parents called police. By then, the man was long gone.
Now, authorities are urging parents to be on heightened alert as investigators seek clues with little to go on but a vague description of a light-skinned black man standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 220 to 235 pounds. He wore glasses and a gray hooded sweatshirt.
“We want everyone to be a little more aware and a little more cautious and vigilant over their children,” said Albemarle County police spokeswoman Carter Johnson.
Security officers responded to the parents’ cries between 2 and 2:30 p.m. Saturday near Kay Jewelers, where the man seized the child as she walked slightly behind her parents. The girl’s father pulled her from the stranger’s grasp. Security officers gained control of the man, then released him, police said.
Authorities learned of the incident when the parents called at 8 p.m., police said. Neither the private firm tasked with providing security at the mall nor the mall’s management company, Simon Property Group, notified police, Johnson said.
“Obviously, we would have liked to be contacted immediately,” Johnson said.
Angry customers took to Fashion Square’s Facebook page to protest a two-line release issued Monday by Indiana-based Simon, which bills itself as the largest real estate company in the world.
“This incident is now a police matter and, of course, we are fully cooperating with their investigation,” said Simon spokesman Les Morris. “Every piece of information that we have in our possession as well as witness reports have been turned over to the police for their follow-up.”
The company did not elaborate.
Security guards observed Sunday at the mall wore uniforms bearing the logo of AlliedBarton Security Services, a Pittsburgh-area private security giant that employs more than 55,000 people nationwide, according to its website.
“We are currently cooperating with the police during the investigation and have no further comment,” said AlliedBarton Vice President Alan Stein.
The primary duty of private security officers responding in an incident like Saturday’s is to safeguard the people involved, then to protect their clients’ interests, analysts and legal experts said.
“We have to kind of break out the part we’re upset from, that they let the guy go, from the thing that would have actually caused harm to the child, the guy that they removed from the situation,” said Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association President J. Lloyd Snook III. “It’s a question of moral responsibility versus legal liability.”
As unarmed officers, the guards at Fashion Square lack the limited powers of arrest that armed security officers possess, said Neadie Moore, licensing manager at the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the state agency charged with regulating private sector security workers,
State code requires unarmed guards to complete 18 hours of training and undergo a criminal background check before they are certified. Armed guards undergo 40 to 42 hours of training.
Shoppers should have a reasonable expectation of safety while they are on mall property — that is why the guards are there, Snook said.
But conflict between company and client policies can be burdensome to contracted security officers facing snap decisions, said Rick McCann, a 38-year law enforcement veteran and founder of Private Officer International, an industry association.
“The directions [officers] get can be conflicting, and that’s why it’s so important for the security company and the other company to be prudent in their requirements of the officer,” McCann said.
An untrained or undertrained guard could be cowed by the very real danger and responsibilities they face, he said. Many guards also fear liability, he added. For instance, could they be sued if they acted to restrain someone without the powers and authority accorded to an armed guard?
“As a guard, you hear a lot about these [lawsuits] and the word gets around,” McCann said. “Still, I am a little bit shocked to hear that [the security officers] let the person go.”
The characteristics of the incident — occurring in the middle of the day in a public place during one of the busiest shopping days of the year — suggest the man might have done something like this before and might try again, said Dr. Jeffrey Fracher, a forensic psychologist practicing in Albemarle.
“The fact that they were thwarted means they are going to be unsatisfied,” Fracher said. “These are the situations that keep me up at night.”
No security cameras captured footage of the incident, Johnson said. Detectives are combing through in-store surveillance footage to see whether the man had been following the family.
So far, Johnson said, police have no leads.