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Will Bernhjelm, Security Director at Mall of America discusses the challenges he and his team face on a day-to-day basis.

Situated in Bloomington, Minnesota just minutes from downtown Minneapolis, USA, Mall of America boasts more than 520 stores and over 10,000 employees, it is one of the top tourist destinations in America. Being responsible for the safety and security of its 40 million visitors each year is no small task but that is exactly what faces Will Bernhjelm, Security Director at Mall of America.

International Security Journal caught up with Bernhjelm to better understand some of the challenges he and his team face each day as well as why good quality staff training is so important.

Learning lessons

Since Mall of America opened its doors in 1992, the world of retail security has drastically changed. Will Bernhjelm has been present for a large portion of this period, having joined the mall’s security team in 2002.

Bernhjelm has worked his way up the ladder since then and is now the mall’s Security Director, responsible for the many millions of visitors to the mall as well as the 5.6 million sq feet of property. He has managerial control of the department and its budgets and liaises with local state and federal law enforcement partners.

He believes that retail security now is a “completely different world” to the one he first started in: “I started right after the 9/11 terror attacks and obviously the focus at that time was terrorism. We have seen that threat evolve over the years and consequently, we have had to change the way we do some things in order to mitigate against it.

“In this industry, we have to be able to change and adapt to whatever the threat is. We also have to be mindful that decisions are not always black and white, you have to operate in the grey areas. One lesson I’ve learned is that we aren’t driving a speedboat, we’re driving an aircraft carrier so you can’t be constantly making decisions on the fly.”

As Bernhjelm mentioned, the threat landscape for retail outlets is now multi-faceted, not just based around terrorism. He explained: “I wish it was one dimensional but there are so many factors out there now that you consider threats to the business, it’s very complex.

“The threat has evolved ten times over since 9/11, now it’s not just terrorism, it’s people with mental illness, workplace violence, organised retail crime, disorderly youths and social media disruptions and protests. We are in a unique position because of our building, we have free and open access to everybody and we have significant brand recognition, plus we are an iconic facility as a symbol of capitalism. We have to consider all these things when we put a plan in place to protect our staff and visitors.”

Added to this, Bernhjelm and his team have had to tackle the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 18-24 months: “COVID-19 has had a really unique impact in a number of ways, aside from trying to keep staff and guests safe and healthy. It has increased the burden on us because we are now being mandated to enforce things that we have never had to enforce before.

“When we were mandated by our State government to wear masks, it was our job to enforce the mask mandate here at the mall, this increased confrontations and aggressive behaviour in an already tense world.

“Some people’s attitudes towards laws and social norms have become apathetic, they are interested in creating conflicts on purpose just so that they can film it and post it on YouTube and other social media platforms. It has made things even more difficult for our staff members.”

Setting the standard

When facing such a multitude of threats and disruptions, it is vital that members of the security team are properly trained and prepared for their roles. This is exactly where the Mall of America sets itself apart from other organisations.

Under the leadership of Bernhjelm, the mall’s security team undergoes huge amounts of training to ready them for what they will have to face on a daily basis. Bernhjelm revealed: “When I did a tour of Iraq with the military, I really understood the value of training. We did six months of training before we left and of course, while we were there, we were relying on that training to keep us safe and bring us home.”

“Therefore, when I had the opportunity to change our training programme here, I knew it would be vital to mission success. When I started, each member of staff had two weeks in the classroom and then two weeks with the field training officer. It was good for that particular time but I realised that it wasn’t enough.”

He continued: “I revamped our field training programme and turned it into what it is today. It is now a two to three month process and has helped the team become recognised both nationally and internationally for what we have achieved. It is vital for us and really sets us apart from all the others in the industry.

“We have to have independent thinkers who can go out there and creatively problem solve, think on their feet and make decisions. Our comprehensive training programme means that by the time our officers ever take a call by themselves, they have over 500 hours of training invested in them, which in this industry is far over and above the standard.”

Looking forward, Bernhjelm forecasts that we are likely to see even more sophisticated threats rearing their heads: “The threats aren’t going away, I think they will continue to evolve and become more complex so we need to come up with some creative problem solving and solutions. That could be through staffing, training or leveraging new technology such as threat detection or video analytics capabilities. Things are changing so fast, it’s really hard to keep up.”

For more information, visit: www.mallofamerica.com

This article was originally published in the November 2021 edition of International Security Journal. Pick up your FREE digital edition here

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