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Protests and Property Protection: Strategies for Today’s Systemic Threat of Social Unrest

As the image spread of George Floyd going lifeless under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, it was with bitter wisdom that LP professionals could see where this was heading.

“The reality is that every police officer trial, every police shooting, has become a potential flashpoint,” said Dave Colen, former director of corporate investigations and standards at Walgreens. And that was back when stores were burned and windows smashed after Freddie Grey died in the hands of Baltimore police. Five years on, the risk to retailers has only grown from social unrest, ideological and political protests turning violent, and associated criminal opportunism.

Chaos causes survival instincts to kick in. It fuels a need to protect oneself. And that is certainly one important element of readying for protests and mitigating the impact from vandalism and looting. Merchants learned—or relearned—about threats, vulnerabilities, and physically protecting individual stores.

LP Solutions

But the scope of this summer’s looting, the scale of wanton destruction, and the remedies that cities subsequently discussed were also reminders of just how connected store security is to the larger retail ecosystem and to society at large—and of the work still to be done on many levels to build resilience. It’s a lesson for loss prevention that top retail executives have warmed to as many were uncharacteristically vocal in expressions of solidarity with peaceful calls for racial justice and police reform. Store security, like a retail brand’s fortunes, is captive to large external forces.

Timothy Williams
Timothy Williams

The spark lit in Minneapolis surely evoked a sense of déjà vu, but the stage was uniquely set for the fire to burn hotter. Months of social isolation, crushing unemployment, organized retail crime (ORC) gangs looking to make up for missed opportunities during shutdown orders, escalating societal divisiveness, rancor, and incivility—it all bore down squarely on retailers in late May. “At the very moment when retail establishments were restocking shelves in anticipation of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the riots in major cities added another layer of risk to their businesses,” explained Timothy Williams, vice chairman with Pinkerton and a security and risk mitigation expert.

For more than a week, stores burned and were ransacked. A Target in downtown Minneapolis was among the first and hardest hit, and hundreds of other stores were destroyed. Soon, violence and destruction became frighteningly widespread. Entire streets worth of shops burned to the ground. Nordstrom’s flagship in Seattle and Neiman’s in Dallas were vandalized. Apple, Verizon, and myriad other electronic stores were ransacked in major cities across the country. High-end sneaker and cannabis shops were targets of choice. Chanel and other luxury stores in Manhattan and in exclusive shopping districts nationwide were picked through. More than $1 million worth of products was stripped from a Louis Vuitton store in Atlanta. Cities said they were calculating losses in billions.

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Major retailers of all stripes closed up shop in affected areas. More than 250 CVS stores across twenty-one states were damaged, and sixty remained closed more than a week after protests started, according to the company. A Target spokesman said 200 stores were closed the weekend following the killing of George Floyd, and several remained closed until they could be repaired after sustaining major damage.

Retailers have contended with protests-gone-wild many times before. Damage and looting of retail properties associated with civil unrest is nothing new. But there did seem to be something different this summer, and it could change how retail will need to assess risks from protests and social movements moving forward.

The riots revealed the ability for today’s social unrest to spread rapidly, “enabled by uncontrollable social media and new democratized communication” that can quickly “bring thousands of people together in coordinated protests,” according to the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, which has conducted “stress case scenarios” of social unrest to understand how they might spread and the damage they’re likely to cause. “Social unrest is now a systemic threat [and] has the potential to manifest in large-scale simultaneous occurrences,” the Cambridge Centre warned. “It poses a serious and growing societal threat” that “is changing the way that businesses are thinking about their risk from political instability.”

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Alex Hearding
Alex Hearding

Several retailers told LP Magazine that civil unrest and social protests have raised the bar for retail crisis preparedness programs. Additive to traditional sources of agitation, LP teams now must track every police officer shooting, impending verdict, and key anniversary date to analyze the potential for it to spark protest and put store assets at risk. The senior asset protection manager for a national retailer said their crisis team convenes an emergency call whenever an event occurs that could spark a violent community response. “As unrest grows, it can potentially bring violence, looting, and property damage,” warned Alex Hearding, chief risk management officer at the National Cannabis Risk Management Association. He saw devastation firsthand this summer, noting that many member businesses were completely cleaned out in major cities across the country.

It is also hard to imagine that this summer’s social unrest was a one-off. Racism sparked this summer’s unrest in the US, but a combination of unemployment, tribal politics, and unequal wealth distribution could drive sociopolitical unrest in many parts of the world. Anger recedes, tempers cool, redress may even placate protestors for a time, but the risk of violence to stores remains ever present, dormant until the next viral video, election result, or catalytic event. What issues might LP think about during the during the respite?

An Evolving Risk Picture

As events unfolded, before the benefit of hindsight, many motives seemed to be fueling the looting and property destruction associated with protests after George Floyd’s killing. The primary driver was a subject of much debate, often falling along political lines. To some, Antifa was sparking most of the violence. Others pointed fingers at white nationalists intent on discrediting peaceful protestors. State and local officials facilitated the narrative by claiming violence was provoked by “outsiders” rather than placing responsibility on members of their own communities.

The Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) brought together members to share intelligence and solutions amid the turmoil. In a situation analysis summary from an emergency group call, which included participants from twenty retailers and topical experts, several groups were identified for co-opting the protests. They included far-left groups seeking to promote revolution and far-right groups attempting to stoke racial divisions and instigate a “race war.” But the call summary noted that the social unrest was co-opted by another force: individuals engaging in crime for personal gain.

This simpler reality seemed a more common culprit to some. Yes, anger was boiling over, and some protesters may have reacted violently to police shows of force or been goaded by the media’s looting-heavy coverage, but much of the store theft was likely unprincipled, committed for self-gain. It’s even what Joe Biggs, an organizer for the ultra-right hate group Proud Boys, told journalists he thought was behind the looting. “What they really want is a new 72-inch screen TV,” he said.

Looters often seemed not to distinguish between chain stores and smaller retailers, hitting both in equal measure and seemingly driven by what they could get rather than any perceived symbolism of their attack. Some minority-owned local retailers were stripped bare, as were national chains. One looter, running out of a nearly empty CVS with an arm full of eggs, gave a local reporter his view on the reason for the looting: “We’re doing it because we can,” he said. Experts in crowd psychology say riots are often an expression of power by groups that have traditionally felt powerless.

There was indeed organization behind the ransacking of retail stores, but those instances weren’t usually political groups, say some experts. After reviewing video of a looting incident in Long Beach, California, in which a dozen police officers stood idly by, one longtime ORC analyst told LP Magazine it had all the hallmarks of an ORC gang, including a woman orchestrating the in- and outflow of boosters and directing them to escape vehicles. “Positioning cars and trucks outside of stores, looting, and loading them with stolen goods,” was a tactic used by those engaged in unlawful activities, according to the retailers convened by the LPRC. Some journalists noted that many looters appeared to be methodically blocking off certain streets with their vehicles, working cooperatively, and calling out commands to one another, while others seemed to spontaneously join in.

That protests associated with the killing of George Floyd were co-opted by many people for many reasons seems to suggest the threat has grown and that protests could more likely spark violence in the months or years ahead. If Occupy Wall Street protests erupted today, would they be as peaceful?

Tony Gallo
Tony Gallo

Tony Gallo, a longtime LP executive and managing partner at Sapphire Risk Advisory Group, a retail security consulting company, said he saw significant levels of organization in some attacks on clients, which are primarily high-risk specialty businesses such as jewelry stores, cannabis dispensaries, and pawn shops. “I think we saw more organized groups [in this summer’s looting],” he said. “In one case, a gang actually secured a store for several hours, fending off other looters, while they proceeded to attack the store safe.”

Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County (California) Sheriff’s Office described an attack on a local car dealership—during which seventy-five vehicles were stolen while police were occupied at protests in Oakland—as being “very strategic” and carried out by “well-coordinated criminals.” Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his department intervened in a significant coordinated operation “to sack an outlet mall.” Neil Sullivan, an expert on mass events security and retired commander for the city of Chicago, thinks it marks a new day. “I have been a student of these things,” he said in an AP interview. “And I have never seen anything like it.”

Industry experts like Caroline Kochman, executive director at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), could probably see it coming. She told LP Magazine that her group tracked an increase in retail theft activity following two recent galvanizing events, the 9/ 11 terrorist attack and the 2008 financial crisis, and that it loomed as stores reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown lifted. During an LP Magazine webinar, John Matas, CFE, CFCI, cochair of the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators, said he was expecting the same. “When the brick-and-mortar stores start to reopen, there’s no doubt that there is an anticipation of significant theft issues.”

Large-scale peaceful protests, then, provided perfect cover to those already itching for a chance to strike. And the impression that looters largely got away with their activities this summer could raise the risk that any future protests—for any number of causes—will be used by organized gangs to commit theft.

During the LPRC emergency call, retailers noted that police in some cities were overwhelmed. This risk may also be exacerbated as some cities are heeding calls to shift monies away from police toward social services for communities of color. While it may or may not be a better allocation of funds for those communities, it could certainly leave police departments less capable to respond when cities catch fire. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, with protests still ongoing, announced he was slashing the LAPD’s budget by more than $150 million. As local communities undertake efforts to reshape the role of police, retailers and their security representatives should get involved so that the industry’s interests and expertise are included in the conversations.

A Need for Intelligence and Analysis

The gathering speed at which viral videos travel is impressive, and yet there is typically a lag between events hitting online and when they catch fire. George Floyd’s killing, for example, started trending on the homepages of websites like Yahoo some thirty-six hours before commercial property damage in Minneapolis and several days before criminals were using the cover of protests in other cities to loot retail stores. It is a compressed timeline to be sure—from video, to outrage, to organized protests, to protest spiraling out of control and stores being damaged—but long enough for retailers to issue emergency alerts, enact contingency plans, and take critical actions to harden properties and remove and protect valuables.

Knowing about a fraught event in real time can provide LP teams with a valuable lead. Social media provides a critical temperature check, but even before the comments section beneath the video to George Floyd’s killing started to fill, experienced security leaders, if aware of the breaking story, would know that store assets were at risk. Advanced intelligence is key. An early-warning system can be a lifeline to stores at risk.

Some LP teams at major big box stores work on the principle that any event that impacts communities impacts their stores. If so, then LP needs to know about every incident that a community will feel. Crisis teams have grown accustomed to tracking weather events, but what about events that threaten to inflame or incite? “Just like with an approaching hurricane, there is always some time where you can see what’s coming. Even if it’s just that a protest is scheduled for tonight, it gives you warning to take critical actions,” said Gallo. It can be lifesaving intelligence that corporate teams can then use to reduce the risk of harm to staff, by warning store managers to be vigilant, ramp-up security or staffing, or close stores.

That, then, seems a critical point of review: how does a retail security team learn and make sense of incidents that could spark unrest? Is the process sufficiently robust to immediately learn what’s happened, to anticipate what’s going to happen next, and to put it into context, assign risk levels, and facilitate a response?

As noted earlier, the motives for violence were muddy and players diverse, which made the threat of violence and looting vary city by city and night by night, according to the Department of Justice. Local officials’ decisions to enact curfews—or not—varied wildly. Police response also differed, and in some cases “delaying a show of force may have exacerbated unlawful activities,” according to the LPRC summary of member input. All such information needs to be gathered, contextualized, compared against asset locations, and then acted upon.

And it all must happen on the fly, said retailers participating in the emergency meeting convened by the LPRC. They noted that situations across the country were constantly and rapidly evolving and that there was considerable variation in unrest across cities and states. It was “a new situation every day, sometimes every hour,” making it “important to continuously track activities and threats.” Tony Gallo noted that his clients were affected first in Minneapolis but that the biggest problem he saw was in California. “It can start in one place and then all of a sudden shift to another part of the country, and then somewhere else,” he told LP Magazine.

While not every rioting event tracks the same, the advice from LP executives on the LPRC emergency call on the topic of intelligence-gathering and information management is probably a good roadmap for whenever social unrest starts to swell:

  • Connect with local, state, and federal law enforcement. “Protecting the business during a riot is dependent on effective local political and law enforcement engagement, to intervene to protect employees, customers, and the business,” noted Pinkerton’s Timothy Williams.
  • Share intelligence with other retailers and law enforcement.
  • Use social media to track activities of organizations known to be involved in protests. Even if the organizations are lawful and peaceable, others may use the protest as an opportunity for crime. The LPRC group suggested that major retailers should use a special investigations team to collect information on social media.
  • Follow information released by state and national retail organizations and others.
  • Benchmark with other local retailers regarding store hours and other practices. “Establishing good communications and relationships with other firms in the immediate area creates a form of mutual ‘guardianship’ of businesses in the area who could alert each other when disruptive crowds or demonstrations are forming or when an incident occurs in the immediate area that could result in problems,” noted Williams.
  • Collect on-the-ground information and provide information to your security operations center to be used on the ground.
  • Follow retail and other informative organizations. And be prepared to provide facts-based context for senior leaders who will be getting information from general media sources that could provide an unrealistic picture of risk, one LP executive suggested to LP Magazine.
  • Assess risk daily. Periods of unrest are likely to have a peak and decline in activity.
  • Use intelligence and analysis to tailor messaging to teams in different locations.
  • Release reports to teams on daily basis if necessary.

Gathering information is vital, and intelligent analysis of information is also necessary. Mob violence is still facilitated by social media, but simply monitoring for mentions may no longer be sufficient as looters seem to have grown wiser at the social media tracking performed by law enforcement and businesses. For example, several retailers noted that offenders were at times targeting locations away from areas where protests were being planned and where they believed police would not be. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said some people stealing from stores were using encrypted messaging to communicate. In the San Francisco area, there were false tweets about looting and rioting that police believe may have been attempts by thieves to divert the police away from targets they wanted to hit, including a false tweet about an officer being shot in one area while a cannabis dispensary was being looted elsewhere. Groups of thieves struck a series of big box stores on Chicago’s South Side while periodically calling 911 to falsely report that a mall several miles away was being ransacked, a city council member told the Associated Press.

For smaller retailers, like the high-risk specialty stores that Gallo works with, “constant contact with law enforcement is particularly critical to get advanced notice and take appropriate action.” Some larger retailers combine such coordination with social media monitoring tools or crisis management intelligence platforms, like tools offered by Dataminr, Everbridge, and Echosec. Location-based social intelligence software can be useful for monitoring protests, allowing users to define a specific geographic area—a mile-wide circle around a store near a protest site—and then live stream the geotagged location of all social media posts within the defined area that contain keywords of interest, the store’s name, for example.

At the 2019 NRF Protect conference, Ryan Mason, asset protection analyst at Big Lots, said they use a real-time information platform for more timely and informed decisions during critical events and to get a better sense of their scale. “We can have eyes on the ground during the event through social media,” he said. The top LP executive for a luxury global retailer added that protest areas and activities are often publicized in advance and that information monitoring helps alert them to an imminent escalation of tensions.

By layering company policies and protocols on top of threat data, software solutions can automate execution of predefined communications processes and track progress, which can be a critical lifeline if social unrest is starting to roil. “The goal…is to achieve situational safety quickly, and with as little risk as possible,” according to Mike Anderson, chief operating officer at Echosec, a dark web and social media threat intelligence firm. “Getting a clear perspective on the events as they unfold is critical for understanding what’s actually happening. Social media monitoring allows rapid access to this information.”

Finally, looting this summer revealed value in the “everyday” intelligence and communications work that LP teams do, including identifying and disrupting fencing operations, working with online marketplaces to prevent the sale of stolen goods, and promoting the ability to identify and track goods at the product level and develop benefit-denial theft prevention solutions. As hard security measures were overwhelmed, all that remained was the ability to deny looters opportunity to capitalize on their crimes. (For more on reducing rewards from committing crime during social unrest, see the accompanying sidebar for advice shared by the Loss Prevention Research Council.)

The Addition of Reputational Risks

Like popular pro athletes, retail brands historically have maintained neutrality on hot-button societal issues. Also like athletes, that has changed. Public expressions by retailers of their views on social issues have grown more common, with some brands finding it a good way to connect deeply with their customers and draw others in. Issues from transgender bathrooms to open carry have had their moments. Social media has made it infinitely easier for the public to put pressure on retail organizations to take positions on socially and politically tinged issues.

Protests this summer against police brutality and systemic racism saw retail organizations weighing in more than ever before. Many issued statements of solidarity with peaceful protestors. “The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts,” wrote Target CEO Brian Cornell. Some, like Gap, Target, and Lululemon, gave money to show support. Small retailers wrote messages of support on plywood covering store windows. While some retailers may have faced blowback for perceived hollow hashtag activism, saying nothing at all risked intense criticism.

From an LP and security perspective, corporate value statements raise the consequence of LP department operations or incidents that run counter to the values that retailers promote to the public. For example, a retail brand may try to aggressively promote itself as fighting for racial justice, but a lawsuit against it alleging discrimination in shoplifting stops or surveillance, or a single recorded incident of mistreatment with racial implications by store personnel, could quickly wipe out its effort to shape that reputation.

Given the growing potential for harm, retail LP departments might find value in reviewing their policies, staffing, training, and oversight to assess if they should do more to prevent the possibility that LP activities could expose a retailer to a claim of being hypocritical or cause lasting damage to its relationship with customers. On June 11, for example, Walgreens issued a statement that is was changing loss prevention tactics, a move that Walmart and CVS also made. “We are currently ensuring multicultural hair care and beauty products are not stored behind locked cases at any of our stores,” the company said.

A baseline for preventing a store incident with racial or ethnic overtones, which could put it in an unwelcome spotlight, is a strict nondiscrimination policy, periodic reminders to employees of acceptable and unacceptable behavior through emails and training, and swift discipline for any violations, according to Professor Sameer Hinduja, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida Atlantic University. To better target training and awareness activities, LP might consider research that shows racial and ethnic tensions that contribute to violent incidents at businesses are rarely isolated from the surrounding community. Thus, an organization’s attempts to address them may benefit from some sort of community engagement. Studies show that—in terms of racial and ethnic hostilities—the relationship between the community and businesses is a reciprocal one.

Today’s divisive political and social climate creates security risks for retailers. The threat would grow if retailers were to receive even less public support for store safety. Police response to shoplifting and store crime was already on the decline across the country. Now, as cities such as Minneapolis discuss dismantling police departments in favor of unidentified “community-based safety” solutions, it is possible that retailers may soon be expected to bear an even greater burden for managing and investigating incidents that occur on store property.

Retail brands can also become the specific target of protesters. As noted, some actively court customers by being outspoken on social issues, and while this can strengthen loyalty among some consumers, it can anger others. And more groups than ever exist that are ready to call out what they see as a retail organization’s faults. “There has been an explosion in the creation of groups that cater to all ends of the social ideological spectrum—many of which focus upon a very narrow subject area or cause,” according to a report by Damballa, a network security firm. No issue today seems too trivial to attract at least a small group of people who are willing to actively engage in its support or opposition, and picking sides—or even appearing to pick sides—can make retailers more likely targets of protest groups. So in addition to generalized unrest, retailers themselves could become the more frequent targets of protesters in the months and years ahead.

Large retail companies have already been targeted for the alleged climate crime of “fast fashion,” for example, and social media has the ability to quickly generate enthusiasm for a cause, stoke anger, and organize and mobilize protests among striking workers or picketing consumers. Monitoring what is being said about a retailer on blogs and in social networks will help identify if a retail organization may become the target of activists and protests, and investigating how adversaries operate will suggest the risk they pose. Ultimately, how retailers manage those protests or strikes from a security perspective may directly affect the amount of reputational harm they do.

In a highly charged environment, retailers can also find their affiliations troublesome, including those with law enforcement. Target, for example, has a long history of working cooperatively with the Minneapolis Police Department, including helping to improve the safety of downtown shopping areas through joint video-surveillance initiatives. While the outreach has been the subject of praise historically, it made the retailer a bigger target in the aftermath of brutality by Minneapolis police officers. Widely shared posts on social media recast those safety initiatives, such as one that read, “Did you know that in 2004 Target spent 300k on cameras in downtown #Minneapolis to help MPD terrorize black + brown community members? And that Target actively funds the lie that cops exist to ‘protect communities’?”

A retailer’s own associations aren’t the only input for risk assessment, of course. To understand risk to a store, an LP team must assess whether any vulnerability or issue may cause neighboring stores or businesses to be the target of protesters, a threat that could then spill over.

The General Services Administration’s Office of Federal Protective Services, for example, uses a highly detailed risk-management model that includes the target attractiveness of neighboring organizations to assess risk to federal buildings. For example, a store’s risk level increases if it is near, say, a reproductive health clinic, a biotechnology research company, or a government office, and key dates that are significant to individuals targeting those buildings may suggest “occasions” for risk that a store hasn’t considered.

Lessons in Store Protection

Crime data on property destruction shows retailers are a frequent target of vandals. The total number of attacks on department, specialty, and convenience stores exceed the number on colleges, universities, and secondary and elementary schools. Additionally, the most recent law enforcement data shows vandalism has been growing. Incidents of property destruction in 2018 were up nearly 3 percent compared to 2015. The risk reaches its peak between midnight and 1:00 a.m., data shows.

Bob Doyle
Bob Doyle

For protection, looks matter, according to Bob Doyle, a security expert, thirty-seven-year law enforcement veteran, and former police officer with the Suffolk County (New York) Police Department. “Having a comprehensive plan and approach to security that includes guards, alarms, exterior lighting, and cameras, along with physical security, makes a retail operation look more secure and protected,” he said. “A protected store becomes less of a target than one that does not go to these lengths,” as vandals and looters typically move to low-hanging fruit.

An ever-present threat, the risk from vandalism could grow as stores and retail brands become surrogates for political expression and as racial tensions rise. There was already a rise before the pandemic in property destruction characterized as hate crimes—more than a 10 percent increase in 2018 over the level from three years prior—and there is anecdotal evidence that the shutdown stoked racial tensions that especially crippled select retail establishments. It is certainly true that such incidents were well reported as news outlets eagerly reported on any fresh angle on the coronavirus crisis, but the volume of the reports were hard to disregard. Across the country, news accounts of Asian-owned businesses being hit by vandals were especially common in April and May.

Measures to protect stores against routine vandalism are helpful against social unrest. Some stores were spared this summer because of hardened exteriors. But even those measures were overwhelmed, as many videos showed groups tearing down metal security gates to get inside stores. Retailers sharing their experience in the LPRC emergency call in June said boarding up windows and bars on doors was recommended for hardening exteriors, while acknowledging may only delay entry. Other ideas they offered to protect against looting and arson included using water barrels, since they can act as an inflammable, heavy obstacle; reducing opportunities for crime by removing make-shift projectiles and combustibles or flammables; and when possible, placing high-value items in safes, secure storage, or moving them to a more secure location. “As we saw with rioting and looting, some stores were burned. This makes it even more important to have an effective fire alarm and fire suppression system,” Doyle told LP Magazine.

He also believes retailers need to think more about attacks during social unrest as they consider store design. “Architectural design will need to change,” he said. “Retail shops and stores of all kinds will have to review their design and how products are displayed. Window display areas may need to be separated from stores by walls so that if a window is broken, access to the entire store is limited.” Especially in densely populated urban areas, where disturbances are most likely, he sees a greater role for roll-down metal gates, steel reinforced doors, and bullet-resistant or hurricane-resistant glass coatings to slow down access to store interiors.

Pinkerton’s Timothy Williams thinks the extraordinary events surrounding the protests this summer could cause some retailers to consider investing in more substantial barriers to deter rioters, but says state-of-the-art crime data and projections are important to “determine the proper calculus for each location based on risk” and to balance security costs against buying more insurance.

On the subject of safes, Gallo said he knew of more than 200 break-ins, and while gun and fire safes were penetrated, he did not know of a single case in which looters were able to defeat a TL-rated safe. “You want to board up if you can, take home any personal items of meaning to you, and I’ve been preaching [to high-risk specialty store clients] to pack your TL-rated safe or vault with everything you possibly can and to use that as your lifeboat. Looters just don’t have the experience to get into those safes.”

Gallo said he also saw some stores forgetting about the risk to data and intellectual property during the unrest. “A lot of stores were not backing up their data and customer files, so when the store was breached and looters stole everything, including hard drives, they lost all their files.” LPRC members similarly noted the importance of removing personnel files from store locations at risk of looting.

“An intellectual property security plan needs to be part of an emergency plan,” advised Gallo, noting that it is one of many planning elements that multistore retailers need to take, including assigning risk ratings for store locations. “I think failures go back to an it-will-never-happen-to-me mentality. As a business owner, you must be more proactive, and it’s a lot less expensive than being reactive.” He says he sees it as a “huge deficiency” in how retailers prepare for protests and the risk from social unrest. “You don’t go to Home Depot and buy plywood on the day the hurricane arrives,” he said by way of example.

Williams offered similar advice to retailers. “Protecting the business during a riot is dependent on appropriate preplanning. Crisis management preparations for retail must always take into consideration riots and civil unrest as a critical aspect of their planning,” he said. “Incidents like what we just witnessed across the US remind us that the most accessible and vulnerable businesses are in the retail sector. Constant vigilance, communications, and preplanning are critical to protect retail businesses in a riot.”

One vital aspect of planning, say experts, is to consolidate policies on managing demonstrations and civil disobedience. Having policies spread out among departments, and in different locations within each department’s policy manuals, can create confusion during an actual event, they warn. One LP director noted the importance of maintaining a comprehensive list of actions that may be necessary to take to help a store location prepare for a protest or unrest, which is not something that can be pieced together at the last minute, he said.

Preplanning for protests and potential social unrest allows stores to more quickly secure critical property and close stores, thus reducing the risk of harm to store personnel—the top priority noted by LPRC members. “I’ve seen people staying in stores, and I am very much opposed to that,” said Gallo, citing one pawnbroker who remained in his store during the looting this summer and was shot and killed.

Williams agreed. He said it’s critical for retail organizations to instruct—and make sure employees understand—that their safety is paramount, and that they should never try to physically defend the business during looting events. “Merchandise can always be replaced; they cannot.”

As such, evacuation must be part of LP’s preplanning. “Plans must be in place and employees properly trained as to the steps to take if a riot occurs when the business is operating,” he advised. “Evacuation routes need to be predetermined and the circumstances made clear for when locking the store and holding in place may be a safer alternative. Safe evacuation may be the only alternative when rioters are overwhelming businesses.”

As social unrest started to spread this summer, Williams said some retailers began considering use of armed security personnel, but he warned retail security pros to think critically before making such a decision and suggested asking the following questions: Is the use of the armed personnel to ensure the safety of employees, merchandise, or both? Is it reasonable to think that such steps would even be effective in a riot or severe demonstration? Are you prepared to deal with the ramifications of using deadly force to protect the business? Could such force simply further target the business for greater harm during a riot?

Looters are brazen, certainly, but they are not immune to security measures, and even rioters act “rationally” in a way, according to academic research, including “Anatomy of Riots: A Situational Crime Prevention Approach,” a study published in Crime Prevention and Community Safety (July 2007). “Even though a mob behaves irrationally and indulges in senseless acts of violence and destruction, the individuals comprising the mob are rational and guided by self-interest in their behavior,” according to the study. “Therefore, even in riotous situations, rational choice perspective can be profitably exploited to prevent mayhem.”

LP pros participating in the LPRC emergency call noted that traditional situational crime prevention techniques are applicable to protecting stores during times of social unrest. “Videoing and photographing looting deter offenders,” they noted, and recommended identifying perpetrators using surveillance video, license plates, and other means, and to save as much information as possible to file reports when protests ended. Police departments, many criticized for a lax initial response to looting and property destruction, promised to use footage to retroactively target criminals.

Maurizio Pejoves
Maurizio Pejoves

“Advanced technology can play a role as an intimidator,” said Maurizio Pejoves, director of P&O Global Technologies, noting that high-resolution images have amplified the ability of video to fill that role. One LP executive noted that IP cameras played an important role in giving his team a live look at unfolding situations at stores they were forced to close.

Bob Doyle suggested that available technology solutions to discourage looting are going unused in the retail industry. He sees room for greater adoption of video alarm verification; sensors and cameras that detect when glass breaks, instantly send an alarm, and start recording high-definition video; and internal and external flashing lights and sirens that provide an audible deterrent. “There are even systems that fill rooms with clouds of harmless fog, which makes it hard for a person to see or move around easily in a retail store that is being looted or vandalized. Fog and sounds disorient and help to repel looters and vandals,” Doyle said.

The risk from vandals should be— but often isn’t—a consideration when purchasing store cameras, Pejoves said. Retailers should consider vandal-proof security cameras for any reachable areas, and cameras should have a battery backup and surge protection, he said. Sharing permissions in advance of protests so that law enforcement can view camera feeds and watch for suspicious activity can add another layer of protection. “It is also essential to have the main security system in a secure area,” he added. “I always recommend hiding the system out of sight, whether it’s in the attic or ceiling, so in case there is a violent or looting event, the system would not be able to be destroyed.”

There are also temporary technology solutions that can support a retailer if there is a risk for protests to spark unrest, Pejoves noted. Adding spotlights around the perimeter can help, and “there also are temporary mobile stations that work with solar panels, that allow you to temporarily install a trailer on the perimeter or in the parking lot. You can remove when necessary and won’t have to run cables through your property,” he said.

From interviews with LP pros, here are additional preparations suggested for protests:

  • Complete crisis preparation forms in advance of scheduled events to help guide risk assessment and mitigation. This can include information such as the asset’s proximity to the event; store construction, such as its number and placement of windows; store hours; neighborhood characteristics; and previous store crime.
  • Assess how practical it will be to operate normally during the protest and plan for employee absences in the event protests disrupt local transportation.
  • Prepare to execute contingencies in the event armored cars are unable to make cash pickups.
  • Create a specific alert or alarm to notify store personnel to a multiple-offender event.
  • As far out as possible from an identified event that could potentially spark public disruption, disseminate relevant information to store managers.

Applying Principles of Situational Crime Prevention to Reduce the Impact of Civil Disorder on Retail Operations

Reduce rewards of committing a crime.

  • Place high-value items, equipment, and merchandise in stock rooms under additional security (for example, install locking door bars). This increases effort required to steal valuables; furthermore, if the store seems empty, it may make some offenders believe the store has already been looted on a previous occasion. If possible, move these items to an offsite storage facility. Note: this may not be possible when roads are blocked or when there is not enough time to safely organize and move inventory and other valuable property.
  • Remove all personnel files containing sensitive information from store locations. These files can be used to steal employee’s identities, engage in all types of fraud, and can enable offenders to use the information to breach IT systems.
  • Remove all window merchandise displays even if windows are boarded up. Once boards are breached, you want offenders to believe that it is not worth removing additional boards or breaking windows; if the first thing they see upon removing one board is attractive merchandise, they will remove more boards and break windows to get to the merchandise.
  • Attach security tags and devices on products in places that will damage products if removed without proper tag removal tools. This will make these items less-desirable targets.
  • Ensure that any store equipment is marked as belonging to your company as this will make it more difficult to resell and thus less desirable.

Source: Excerpt from Responding to Civil Disorder by Cory Lowe, MA, PhD Candidate, University of Florida, Loss Prevention Research Council, 2020

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