The job of a security officer can be rather low-key. If your shift consists of making night rounds at an unpopulated facility, you may go weeks without ever running into another person on your job, much less get involved in a confrontation.
Even security work at heavily trafficked areas can be rather peaceful – manning the front desk at the Yale Law School is unlikely to get you into a scrape with drunken louts or hormonal teenagers.
Mall security, on the other hand, is a job replete with such pleasures. While a mall isn’t as volatile as, say, a bar or night club, it can still be difficult to manage – a huge area with heavy foot traffic, family squabbles, shoplifting incidents; to all this, add the fact that in many towns, the local mall is a favorite hangout for teenagers – whose idea of “fun” has a massive overlap with an adult’s definition of “mayhem” – and being a mall cop suddenly seems like a job that demands non-trivial skills in people management.
An effective mall security officer is someone who is able to oversee a large number of people, detect problems, manage aggressive individuals, take charge in health emergencies and respond to petty crime, and do all this while avoiding the use of excessive force and minimizing the potential for ugly incidents that may cause negative publicity for the mall and its resident businesses.
In locations with higher crime or poverty, mall security routinely have to deal with drug pushers or users, and check restrooms for people attempting to inhabit them.
In addition, with increasing public concern over terrorism over the past decade, mall security are also the first line of response to suspicious activities and items such as abandoned bags or suitcases.
You wouldn’t know this from popular culture, where “mall cop” is a term that’s frequently used in a way that suggests dismissal or even derision. Mediocre comedies portray the mall officer as a hapless schlub who couldn’t cut it as a police officer. The dismissive attitude even filters down to public figures, some of whom have used the term as a slur. For example, New York mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, when criticizing Port Authority police, referred to them as “nothing more than mall cops.”
In a more recent case, rapper Jay Z made an angry reference to the notorious Florida vigilante George Zimmerman after the latter’s acquittal, calling him “a novice” and an “[expletive] mall cop.”
The plight of the mall security officer is put in stark relief by the case of Atlanta’s Darien Long, famous on the Internet as the “Kick A** Mall Cop.” Long was the property manager of the Atlanta Metro Mall and an individual who took his job extremely seriously. To work, he packed handcuffs, mace, a Taser, a bulletproof vest, and the device that made him famous – a GoPro camera that recorded everything he did.
Long would record encounters with unruly mall visitors and post them on his YouTube channel; some of the videos show him Tasering people. The most famous clip shows him confronting a mother and her young children; he gets into an altercation with the woman, which soon turns into a shoving match; after blows start landing, he
While these encounters turned Long into the darling of justice-craving commenters on YouTube and the popular forum Reddit (the latter even held a fundraiser to buy him better equipment, which netted over $18,000), many others criticize his approach as needlessly aggressive and accuse him of being motivated less by security and more by the pleasure of a power trip.
The incidents didn’t just make Long famous online, but also landed him in trouble. In March of 2013, he was fired from his position. In an interview, he cited a somewhat convoluted chain of events as the reason for this: his antics drew attention to the mall from Atlanta police, which conducted an unusually high number of raids to root out counterfeit goods from resident businesses; two of the shops closed as a result, and the loss of business convinced mall authorities that Long’s tenure there was a liability.
The displeasure of Atlanta police with his actions didn’t stop there: Long was arrested and charged with battery for two incidents of tackling and Taser use; police officers testified against him in the case.
The experience of Darien Long is just one example of the fine line that mall security needs to tread, to be firm without being aggressive and tough without being violent. Furthermore, security officers need to do this without the power of arrest or the protection of laws that shield police officers from liability in many cases.
One hopes that at the very least, popular culture will become more aware of the difficult job mall cops perform and give them a bit more credit for it.