MIKE SMITHSON: Is carnage and chaos the new normal for our shopping centres? It seems so

Mike Smithson
The Nightly
Police are seen at Westfield Marion Shopping Centre in Adelaide, Sunday, June 23, 2024. An altercation between two groups of teenagers in a food court has sent a major Adelaide shopping centre into lockdown.
Police are seen at Westfield Marion Shopping Centre in Adelaide, Sunday, June 23, 2024. An altercation between two groups of teenagers in a food court has sent a major Adelaide shopping centre into lockdown. Credit: Matt Turner/AAPIMAGE

It was an eerily familiar story last Sunday afternoon.

I was working in the 7NEWS Adelaide newsroom when reports emerged of a person with a knife running amok in the crowded Westfield Marion shopping centre.

The next calls from those who have close connections with police indicated innocent people may have been stabbed.

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Then even worse, two people may have been killed.

Fortunately, fatalities or injuries didn’t eventuate, but no one who was working then or on that fateful Saturday in April when the Bondi Junction tragedy occurred, could rule anything in or out.

The South Australian Premier was primed for the worst, and it took some time before Peter Malinauskas could be sufficiently briefed and convinced that calm had been restored without human mishap.

Having been on duty through both events, I now have a strict personal protocol that I enact the moment alarm bells start ringing.

It comes with the territory, that news journalists often have the advantage of knowing potential dangers in real time and I fully use it.

Firstly, I group message immediate family members warning them to stay away from the problem location and eliminate potential risk to them.

I also advise them to tell their friends who may be in the vicinity of any unfolding tragedy.

Sadly, a family member had a personal connection to a Bondi massacre victim.

Many questions have been asked about Westfield’s response to the SA incident and whether it overreacted to, essentially, a scuffle between two groups of teenagers.

Prior to Bondi, security would have dealt with the incident with a clip over the ear and an expulsion from the shopping mall, if that.

But witnesses reported seeing weapons, expandable batons similar to those used by police, and a machete.

Police say the youths fled the food court through a department store which increased the perimeter of possible conflict and injury, had they been launching a mass attack.

They were later apprehended and now face a youth court.

But Westfield must be commended for locking down the huge complex and notifying all patrons to leave or seek refuge immediately.

Who can possibly question such a swift response after Bondi’s carnage which claimed six lives and a dozen serious injuries?

During the panicked evacuation, display screens were flashing a warning to mums, dads, and kids: “Attention: Armed Offender. Escape, Hide, Tell.”

With Bondi images still fresh in the minds of those shoppers, how could they avoid feelings of terror and ongoing apprehension, which may still be apparent?

Many terrified people were locked inside shuttered shops for more than an hour during a thorough search of the huge shopping complex.

Some parents remained in the bitterly cold weather conditions outside, awaiting news from their distressed kids locked down inside.

The experience has been unhelpful for the mental health of shoppers and workers who were traumatised way beyond reasonable expectations.

A busy afternoon of trade was also abandoned during the mayhem, with unions quick to point out that workers can’t be financially penalised for the lost time, while under-pressure shop owners still count their losses.

But sadly, this is the new normal.

Shopping malls are different from most other businesses.

Unlike big corporations, you can’t security check people in and out or know exactly how many people are in the building at any one time or know where they’re located.

Westfield management hit the emergency button and fully armed, tactical police swarmed the scene as they must.

The haste for immediate and forceful action only heightened the feelings of panic, but that’s also the way it must be.

Even Westfield’s cinema staff ordered patrons to flee quickly onto a rooftop while the movies kept rolling.

If there is an upside to this modern-day problem, it’s the raised public vigilance.

Be aware but not paranoid of being in a crowded and busy location.

Keep your wits about you for anything unusual and have a contingency if needed during an emergency.

Minor disturbances, such as last Sunday’s, must also be dealt with appropriately in the judicial system, to dissuade other mischief-makers.

Security staff at shopping centres must be treated with respect and, in return, show it to law-abiding customers.

This Sunday afternoon misadventure captured national headlines.

That too is confirmation that Australia is now on the highest community security alert after the Bondi tragedy.

Let’s hope this behaviour doesn’t become a regular pastime. But sadly another armed incident, involving six youths, occurred just two days later at Adelaide’s Arndale shopping precinct.

Mike Smithson is chief reporter and presenter at 7NEWS Adelaide with 45 years of experience.

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