Two major suburban shopping malls, in Braintree and Wrentham, have added new security cameras in response to concerns about safety and crime from their home communities.
Wrentham Village Premium Outlets last fall installed 10 security cameras to monitor common areas and parking lots after the town’s Planning Board voted to allow a Black Friday Midnight Madness sale only if the new cameras were added.
South Shore Plaza in Braintree is in the process of installing cameras, which are due to be operational by the end of this week, to monitor common areas, after years of prodding by the town for the change.
“I think the plaza now realizes this is an important ingredient to having a safer and more comfortable shopping experience,” said Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan. “You want a strong, healthy, vibrant shopping experience, as well as a sense of comfort and safety, so that’s what we’re working on.”
Malls often use private security details, supplemented by local police officers, to deal with crime, particularly during special events. Individual stores often have security cameras, but shopping centers vary on whether they place cameras overlooking common and parking areas, like the new cameras installed at Wrentham Village and South Shore Plaza.
“At all of our properties, security is of the utmost importance,” said Les Morris, spokesman for Simon Property Group, which owns and manages the South Shore Plaza, Wrentham Village Premium Outlets, and several other malls in the state. “We do a number of things, both seen and unseen, to make our environment as safe as it can be.”
As the security is enhanced, local police department records covering from January 2011 through March of this year show a steady number of calls from the two malls, as well as a third regional shopping complex in the area, Legacy Place in Dedham.
Of the three, South Shore Plaza, the largest with more than 190 stores and restaurants, had the highest number of police calls, which can range in seriousness from a disabled motor vehicle to assault and battery.
During the same time period, South Shore had 4,126 incidents logged by police and Wrentham had 2,659. Legacy Place, which is newer and began opening some stores in August 2009, had 1,730. Wrentham’s figure includes “walk and talks,” in which police officers patrol the mall on foot, in its total count of incidents.
The number of calls make up a relatively small percentage of overall police calls in the host communities. In Dedham, for instance, the Legacy Place incidents amounted to just 3.8 percent of the total logged by the Police Department in the first quarter of this year.
Of the three malls, South Shore Plaza had the most calls related to drug activity: 54 were coded as a “drug law violation” over the 27-month period, including arrests for possession of heroin with intent to distribute, and conspiracy to violate the Controlled Substances Act.
Dedham recorded no incidents specifically described as drug reports at Legacy Place, and Wrentham had 5 “narcotics violations” during the same period.
Last month, police arrested five men for allegedly dealing heroin in the South Shore Plaza’s parking lot.
Braintree police said at the time that the men were sitting in a vehicle parked in a row of cars, and raised the suspicion of an officer. When police approached, the men refused to open the car’s door. Police forced their way in and allegedly found heroin packaged for sale on the floor of the car.
Local officials say they are glad South Shore and Wrentham are adding the security cameras.
Sullivan, Braintree’s mayor, said he hopes the new cameras will be a deterrent to drug crimes. And in Wrentham, Joe Botaish, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said town officials had asked for the cameras for years and he’s glad they are finally in place.
Kelly Moore, president of the North Braintree Civic Association, said his organization was formed by opponents to the plaza’s expansion in the 1970s, but the relationship between the mall and the community has improved tremendously since then.
“There have been very few concerns, but the plaza and police do a good job of managing issues together,” said Moore. “All in all, they’ve been a good neighbor and are obviously concerned about their public perception, and have responded in kind.”
Coverage by local police is sometimes paid for by the malls in a given community. In Braintree, for example, two police officers have regular daily shifts at the South Shore Plaza, in addition to the police details added for special events, said Sullivan. The annual cost for both categories tops $338,000, and is paid for by the plaza, he said.
There’s also a substation at the plaza used as a holding cell, which the town is trying to bolster with new technology so that bookings can also be done there, said Sullivan.
As for the crime data, each police department uses slightly different categories, but in all three cases, the tallies for crimes and other incidents at the malls are based on how a call or complaint is initially described, and does not always translate into an arrest.
Incidents that involve the potential for personal injury or loss of property make up a relatively small portion of all calls, but are often the most worrisome for the general public.
From Jan. 1, 2011, through the end of March, Braintree recorded seven calls from South Shore Plaza described as “assault and battery with a dangerous weapon,” 23 termed as “assault” or “assault and battery,” and four described as “sex offense.” In addition, there were 460 incidents termed “larceny,” and 15 incidents called larceny of a motor vehicle.
During the same period, Wrentham recorded seven calls described as “assault and battery,” three termed “robbery,” and nine labeled as larceny of a motor vehicle.
Legacy Place in Dedham made news last month with a skirmish.
Several men were assaulted at about 8:15 p.m. April 26, and one was transported to the hospital for treatment of an eye injury, authorities reported.
A week later, Dedham Police Chief Michael d’Entremont issued a statement to knock down rumors that groups of teens often gathered at the mall and caused trouble. He said there is no such pattern, and youths are closely monitored when at the mall without parental supervision.
“Youths gathered” is a line item in the police incident reports for Legacy Place, but it only shows up four times in the logs from the 27-month period.
Over the same period, there were four “assaults” at Legacy Place, 66 incidents described as “larceny,” 11 calls described as “fight in progress,” one “indecent exposure,” one “sexual assault,” and one “armed robbery.”
According to d’Entremont, crime is lower than what might be expected at a shopping center of its size.
Asked about the sexual assault, he said it wasn’t something that could have been prevented by tighter security.
Beth Winbourne, general manager of Legacy Place, said there have been security cameras aimed at parking lots, garages, and common areas since January 2010.
She wouldn’t comment on any other aspect of security, including the number of cameras or police details.
“We run a very tight ship,” said Winbourne, “and since day one, public safety has been our number one priority, and it still is our number one priority.”
Shoplifting constituted a large chunk of the police calls at all three shopping centers. In the first quarter of this year, shoplifting calls accounted for 61 of 452 calls at South Shore, seven of 143 calls at Legacy Place, and 41 of 279 calls at Wrentham.
Shoplifting and in particular “retail booster gangs” are the biggest problem at the outlet mall, according to Wrentham police Detective Lieutenant Bill McGrath.
Such gangs are essentially professional shoplifters who make it their full-time job and work in groups to target stores, he said.
But because the majority of stores at the mall have a corporate policy of not calling the police when a shoplifter is detected, the number of shoplifting crimes that show up in public records is “a drop in the bucket” compared with what really happens, said McGrath.
“Our biggest problem is actually the corporate component of the stores,” said McGrath, who nonetheless praised local mall management. “They claim it’s for employee safety; however, their policies go way too far to the extreme when they’re not allowing the employees to call.”
The new security cameras have already helped apprehend a shoplifter at the Wrentham outlets.
A man went into a jewelry shop at the outlets a few months ago and asked to look at a $13,000 diamond-studded watch, said McGrath. He then took the watch and bolted out the door and to his car, where a camera recorded the vehicle’s registration plate.
The suspect was arrested and is in custody, said McGrath, who added that it is “highly unlikely” the crime would have been solved without the security cameras.
“I think they help for everything ranging . . . from shoplifting to potential terrorist activity,” he said.