Reducing the Risk of Violence in Public Places

By: John Scanlon

Sadly, in our world, we increasingly deal with acts of violence that occur in public places such as shopping malls, schools and office buildings. People often have a fatalistic view of such violence and wrongly conclude that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it from occurring. This is not true. Study after study has shown that there are certain things that business owners, school districts and employers can do to reduce the risk of violence in public places. Over the next two editions, we will explore this issue of violence in the public sphere.

In today's article we will address the responsibilities of business owners to customers who enter their businesses and methods currently utilized by businesses to reduce the risk of violence. In next month's edition we will explore the responsibilities of an employer to its employees with regards to violence in the workplace and methods to reduce violence at work.

As a general proposition, courts have been reluctant to impose a duty on business owners to protect against violence perpetrated by criminals. The logic behind this reluctance was simple: Why should a business owner be responsible for the random bad acts of a criminal? Typically, courts have found that a business owner cannot be the absolute insurer of its customers' safety.

However, the court's reluctance to hold a business owner responsible for acts of violence will evaporate in certain circumstances.The first exception to the general reluctance occurs when a business owner is aware that there have been repeated instances of a certain type of criminal activity occurring at its place of business but does nothing to either stop the criminal activity or warn its customers of the criminal activity. When this type of situation occurs, courts will hold the business liable for any damages caused by this type of violence.

The reason a business owner should be held liable in this type of situation is simple. A business owner has superior knowledge of the prior crimes and customers often have no knowledge at all of these prior crimes. As result of this lack of knowledge, customers are vulnerable to attack.

For example, an owner of a hotel may know that during the past year there have been a number of sexual assaults on the hotel property. Guests who are new to the area may have no idea that these prior assaults had occurred on the property. Under this type of situation, where the owner has superior knowledge, the owner has a duty to warn its guests and attempt to provide some measure of protection to prevent future assaults.

Another example would include a store owner that knows that street gangs are utilizing its property to engage in criminal activities such as purse snatching, car jacking or narcotic sales. When a store owner knows that street gangs are repeatedly using the business property for ongoing criminal activity once again the business has a duty to attempt to warn and protect its customers.

The second situation which will result in a business owner being responsible for certain criminal acts arises when a business owner does a poor job managing its security operations. When a business undertakes to provide security guards, security cameras and other security measures, courts have held that the business owner must do so in a reasonably careful manner. The reasoning behind this is also simple. We as customers when visiting businesses are more likely to relax and feel safe when we see the presence of security guards and security cameras. But what if our assumptions concerning the guards and cameras are wrong?

For instance, what if the security cameras do not work? What if the guards we see do not have the proper license and training required under law? What if the security system has inoperable radios, alarms, or locks? In situations like those above, courts will find a business owner responsible if when providing services they do so in a way that is unsafe and leaves customers vulnerable to attack.

Having set forth two situations where a business owner does have a responsibility to protect its customers, we can now turn to some of the more successful strategies employed by responsible businesses to protect customers. The majority of all attacks that occur at places of business happen in the store parking lot or entrance way areas of the business. There are very simple measures that can be undertaken to decrease the chance of criminal attacks in these areas. Most important of all, business owners should install sufficient outdoor lighting to allow customers to see in all directions around them. In addition, fencing can be installed around the parking lot to control the points of access to the parking area. Also, cameras can be utilized on the outside of the store to monitor activity occurring in the parking areas and entrance ways. Finally, store security guards should be retained to prevent any loitering on the store premises.

As to the interior space of the store or business, once again utilization of security guards and security cameras at each entrance can reduce the risk of unwanted intrusion. Also, most larger store operations utilize crisis manuals and crisis training so that store personnel know how to react in the event of acts of violence. For instance, typical crisis manuals instruct that store premises should be locked down if there is any chance of an armed intruder entering a business. Finally, well trained and vigilant employees can be a vital asset in recognizing threats and responding in an efficient and appropriate manner.

In next month's edition we will explore this topic of public violence further. In particular, we will explore the duty that an employer has towards its employees concerning workplace violence.