Following the Walmart El Paso Shooting, What Are Retailers Doing to Keep Customers Safe?

Every three months, Walmart’s 1.5 million U.S. employees sit down at computers to be trained in what to do if there’s an active shooter in their store. This week, workers at two of the retailer’s stores were forced to respond to the scenario in real life, as gunmen opened fire at stores in Southaven, Miss., on July 30 and El Paso, Texas, on August 3.

Together, the shootings left 24 dead, including two Southaven store managers in what has been reported as an act of workplace violence carried out by a disgruntled coworker. The El Paso attack, meanwhile, is being investigated as domestic terrorism; the suspect reportedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online shortly before opening fire in the store, which is located less than three miles from the Mexican border.

The events were a grim reminder that even the best-prepared retailer can be a target of gun violence. Stores and malls, after all, are open, commercial facilities without protections like metal detectors or armed police. “We know that we’re open to the public, so we know that we’re vulnerable,” said Robert Moraca, VP for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation (NRF). “As a society, this is accepted. If you go to a movie theater, a hotel, a restaurant, a retail outlet or a ball game, the price of the liberties that we enjoy as a country make it a riskier situation.”

While the frequency of these events is, he added, “extremely, extremely low,” there have been several incidents in recent years that have encouraged retailers to step up their precautions, dating back to a 2007 mass shooting at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Neb., which left nine people dead, including the gunman.

“I would say almost every retailer is taking this opportunity to look at [its] programs,” said Moraca, pointing to a set of guidelines the NRF and the Department of Homeland Security created to distribute to retailers. Over the past decade, he said, active-shooter response plans have become common among retailers of all sizes. Depending on their resources, these measures might include implementing regular custom training sessions like Walmart, bringing in local law enforcement for drills or installing a bullet-resistant door (or even just a lock) on a backroom that staff can access in case of an emergency.

The shared tenets of the programs, though, are the same: run, hide, fight — it’s a system that prioritizes escape routes as the first defense against attacks. According to local El Paso news, one longtime Walmart worker, Gilbert Serna, helped 140 customers escape from Saturday’s shooting after he heard “code brown” — the alert for a shooting situation — over the store’s intercom, ushering the group through a fire exit and into shipping containers to hide in the back lot.

This kind of timely action is essential, said Mark Lowery, president of Lowery & Associates Security Consulting and a former U.S. Secret Service agent: “There are three phases of active shooter response: you have what’s called the denial phase, and then you have the deliberation phase and then you have the decisive moment phase… People need to transition as quickly as possible through that denial phase.” One way to do this is by being mentally prepared — knowing evacuation routes and safety protocol, such as rolling down security gates at the first sign of a threat.

Walmart recently began rolling out virtual reality training for employees, including an active shooter simulation.

While high-level preparations are important, it’s the workers on the ground that will ultimately need to respond in the very rare case of such an event, said Lowery. “One of the things that I would like to see [companies] start doing — and we talk about this when we do training — is start getting your staff first aid training. Because as we just witnessed, your staff will probably be the first responder.”

Responding officers arrived at the scene within six minutes in El Paso, but as Lowery explained, it can take additional time for paramedics to reach victims and begin treatment as police clear the area. “In an urban environment, if you keep somebody alive 10 minutes, paramedics are probably going to be able to get there and the chance of surviving is much better.”

Just as important as preparing workers is involving local law enforcement, said Moraca: “There’s a golden rule in the world of this type of crisis management that you should never be meeting your first responders for the first time and shaking hands with them at the scene of an incident. You should have spoken to them before. They should be part of the planning.”

FN reached out to 11 retailers and mall owners — Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, JCPenney, Macy’s, Foot Locker, Related Companies, American Dream, Miracle Mile Shops, General Growth Properties and Trademark Property — about their security measures following the recent shootings. Only Target responded with a comment:

“Our hearts are with those in El Paso and Dayton after the tragic events of this past weekend. At Target, the safety of our guests and team members is our top priority. We take a comprehensive approach to our safety procedures that includes team member training, partnerships with law enforcement and the use of technology. We consistently review our programs and security measures to help us be as prepared as possible in the event of a security situation.”

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