It’s been nearly four months since a shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., became the latest high-profile, gun-related incident in a grocery store, killing 10 people and injuring others.
A growing number of lone wolf-style attacks across the country have terrorized public places such as schools, churches, movie theaters, nail salons, grocery stores and more. In these situations, preparation is key, said Ashley Bleacher, intelligence analyst supervisor for the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center (PaCIC).
“The threat posed by terrorism has evolved significantly over the past two decades since 9/11,” she said. “We’re still focused on the threat posed by foreign organizations, of course, but we are equally, if not more focused, on the persistent threat that we’re seeing posed by domestic violent extremists. The incidents over the last couple of years at retail locations have been conducted by domestic United States citizens, in most cases.”
The fusion center concept is one of the developments since September 11, 2001, to help identify and prevent future terror attacks.
“PaCIC is a Fusion Center, and we are part of a national network of fusion centers,” Bleacher said. “A fusion center is a collaborative effort of two or more agencies. We’re the Pennsylvania State Police, and we bring in other agencies that provide resources, expertise and information into the center. We combine that information with the shared goal of building and maximizing our ability to detect, investigate and respond to any kind of criminal activity or terrorist activity.”
Recently, Bleacher and other officials from PaCIC’s Critical Infrastructure and Key Resource (CIKR) Unit met with members of PFMA’s Loss Prevention Committee to discuss ways that food retailers can identify and report suspicious activity. Grocery stores are essential public places, categorized by the Department of Homeland Security as part of 16 vital sectors to protect against terrorist attacks.
It’s all about gathering and sharing information, Bleacher said. “We bring together multiple agencies and sources of information to really put the pieces of the puzzle together, and then share it back out. That’s our biggest role, really, is sharing that information out and making sure it’s not staying static.”
Here’s how it works: Those working in the food, agriculture and retail industries identify and anonymously share information with PaCIC and local law enforcement agencies that they deem suspicious or a threat. PaCIC sifts through incoming information, analyzes it and determines what to report to law enforcement. Appropriate action is then taken to notify or prepare organizations for any threats or trends that might impact them.
“Because of the nature of the ongoing threat environment and how many incidents have occurred over recent years and months, there is a greater general awareness for the potential of an incident to occur anywhere, anytime,” Bleacher said.
The CIKR unit produces and shares a monthly cyber report and a quarterly report that touches on major events. They offer suspicious activity training, resources, a listserv and other outreach opportunities to those in the public and private sectors.
The changing environment has been evident to Dawn Roller, senior manager of Loss Prevention and POS and Brown’s Shoprite Superstores. She also serves as chair of PFMA’s Loss Prevention Committee. “There are so many different variables changing rapidly. We update our policies and procedures as incidents arise, whether that be active shooter, robbery, bomb threats, fires, etc.”
Roller has worked in loss prevention with Wakefern for six years. Brown’s Shoprite Superstores rely on many of the procedures developed by Wakefern, but also produce their own based on local events, she said.
“I think we are very prepared, but it’s important to have reminders at every level and discuss what the safety topic of the day is,” she said.
Roller has noticed that since COVID, people seem to be moodier, more aggressive and verbally combative. It’s important to know who to contact when an incident arises and how to deescalate a situation, she said. She encourages employees to watch the news and see what’s happening around the country. “If it’s happening in California, within a week, it goes to the East Coast.”
In 2020, many Brown’s stores experienced civil unrest in Philadelphia. Roller said one of the most beneficial resources to their team was using a closed-circuit television (CCTV). As employees tried to safely exit a store, Roller was able to guide them to the roof and tell them to wait for help. She said it’s important to appoint someone outside of the store who can remotely access the CCTV in an emergency.
“I could tell them the safest place to go is on the roof. That was critical,” she said. “You can remote into your store and see where they are. You can give a description to the police or help your associates.”
Roller also stresses setting up regular safety committee meetings and 5-minute huddles at different points of the day to cover safety topics. Regular reminders are important, she said.
Education is another big piece of the puzzle, Bleacher said. A business should stress topics like cyber hygiene, emergency response plans, familiarity with the facilities, communication plans and regular training for employees at every level of the organization. It’s also important to build relationships with local law enforcement agencies so that they have access to emergency response plans and are familiar with the layout of the facility.
Roller added that it’s important to work together. “I have a great relationship with my Wakefern partners, and if anyone needs guidance, you can always contact me.”
Managers, employees and even customers all can anonymously report suspicious activity through text and photos with the See Something, Send Something app—free to Apple and Android users. “That information comes directly to analysts at the fusion center who are here 24/7,” Bleacher said.
It’s better to send anything than to overthink it and send nothing, Bleacher noted. Leave the analysis to PaCIC. “We’d rather look at it and determine it’s nothing. Include as much information as you have,” she said. “Include the address and why it is suspicious. Articulate it—why is the behavior suspicious.”
Roller emphasized this isn’t intended to scare anyone. The point is to be prepared. “If you’re a store owner, it could happen to you. It could happen six doors down from you,” she said. “Don’t panic but have a plan. Be calm and think of the next step.”
Identifying suspicious activity
Eliciting information that goes beyond curiosity of business operations, security, floor plans, etc.
Testing security by challenging personnel or systems to reveal information
Recruiting or gathering contacts, personnel data, banking information, etc.
Photographing or recording facilities, buildings or infrastructure, including infrequently used access points, security, equipment, etc.
Observing or surveilling facilities or infrastructure beyond casual interest
Acquiring unusual quantities of materials like cell phones, fuel or timers
Acquiring expertise such as obtaining military weapons or conducting military tactics
Discovering large amounts of weapons or explosives
Creating sector-specific incidents with personnel, facilities, systems or function.
Identifying criminal activity or potential terrorism
Intruding or entering restricted areas
Misrepresenting an identity or affiliation
Stealing or diverting something associated with an organization, such as a uniform, badge or vehicle
Damaging a facility or infrastructure
Compromising or attempting to compromise an organization’s technology with a cyber attack
Threatening the organization verbally or in writing
Operating aircraft in a suspicious manner
Anyone can use the See Something, Send Something app to anonymously report suspicious activity. What’s considered suspicious, criminal or threatening activity? Review the lists above provided by the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center (PaCIC). Download the app for free on any Apple or Android device.
PaCIC operates a 24 hours/day, 7 days/week Terrorism Tip Line, (888) 292-1919, and email account, email@example.com, to solicit information from the public. The Terrorism Tip Line provides an avenue for individuals to report suspicious activity to law enforcement for follow-up.
The PFMA Loss Prevention Committee will focus on suspicious activity and other key issues at future meetings. Association members are free to join this and other PFMA committees to contribute expertise and stay on top of news and trends. Learn more at pfma.org/committees.