A gunman opens fire inside Northwoods Mall on a Friday afternoon in late February. Shoppers run, no one is hit.

Four days later, a woman is fatally shot in the parking lot of Citadel Mall.

Recent incidents at Charleston-area shopping malls have left some residents on edge, wondering if these and other public spaces are safe. And it's not just the Charleston and North Charleston malls that are seeing outbursts of violent crime. Around the country, such incidents seem to regularly make headlines, but the violence may not be happening as often as perceived.

A Post and Courier request to the Charleston and North Charleston police departments for documents related to fatal and nonfatal shootings from 2014 to 2018 at each mall yielded three reports, a number matched by the newspaper's archives. 

Going back to April 1995, a search of previous reporting revealed 16 shootings or other incidents of violent crime at the two malls.

Northwoods Mall's parent company, CBL Properties, issued a statement in response to the most recent shooting on Feb. 22.

"We take the concerns of our customers and the community very seriously, and providing a convenient, comfortable and enjoyable experience is our top priority," the statement reads. "We maintain a full-time, professional, third-party security contractor, in addition to employing off-duty North Charleston police officers at various times each week."

The statement also noted that there are some security measures that are not visible to the public. CBL declined to disclose details about security protocol, citing concerns over compromising their efforts.

"We constantly evaluate our procedures and make adjustments based on traffic, seasonality, and any local event that has the potential to impact center operations," the statement reads.

Citadel Mall owner Richard Davis was reached but did not comment for this report.

'Situational awareness'

Incident reports and newspaper archives show that most violent crime at Charleston area malls happened outside the main shopping areas.

In April 2001, a Charleston police officer was shot in the side outside Citadel Mall during a struggle that broke out after a handcuffed shoplifting suspect grabbed his gun. The officer survived.

In November 2004, a North Charleston police drug sting in the parking lot of Northwoods Mall ended with officers fatally shooting a suspect. Police officials at the time stated shoppers were never at risk.

Only a handful of incidents involved shots fired inside a mall.

In December 2006, a 21-year-old man was wounded in the leg after shots broke out inside a bathroom at Citadel Mall.

More recently, in July 2017, a single gunshot inside Northwoods Mall sent shoppers and employees running. That shooting was sparked by an argument between two men inside a clothing store. Early social media reports about that incident incorrectly claimed there was an active shooter and that multiple people were injured. No one suffered injuries during the shooting.

For Steven Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance and an expert on event safety and security, public fear in the wake of such shootings is natural and understandable.

Gun violence needs to be handled very seriously, but it is important for the public to keep the facts in mind, he said.

"It is worth noting that gun violence is still relatively rare in most public places, particularly given the amount of time we spend in places like malls," Adelman said.

"It is the shiny object of our day — appropriately, because it is a terrible problem that we should be able to solve — but the attention to gun violence remains disproportionate to its frequency."

Shoppers should use common sense and maintain a level of "situational awareness" when they go to a mall, he said. Most people can recognize when someone appears to be acting suspiciously or is carrying something inappropriate.

"If they do sense that something isn’t right, the shopper should find a person in charge, whether a security person or mall employee who has access to mall security, tell them what they see, and then move somewhere they feel safer," Adelman said.

In any public environment, it's also a good idea to be aware of where the nearest exit is, listen for any emergency or safety announcement, and generally be aware of one's surroundings, he said.

Lingering concerns 

Responding to questions submitted on social media, West Ashley residents expressed a variety of opinions on the subject of mall safety.

Many stated they have stopped going to the mall, planned to stop going or would only go to certain stores during daytime hours. Others stated they were not worried, pointed out that the recent shooting was an isolated incident and said they wouldn't let fear control their lives.

Stacey Hayes, a 54-year-old West Ashley resident, told The Post and Courier she sees positive signs at Citadel Mall and in West Ashley overall despite occasional outbursts of violent crime.

"It could have happened anywhere," Hayes said. "It really was an isolated incident. We obviously err on the side of safety, but I don't feel any more risk there than I do going to the Harris Teeter across the street. It's not the mall in particular and it's not West Ashley in particular."

Following the homicide in the parking lot, Hayes said she spoke with friends and neighbors who shared similar thoughts.

It is understandable why so many people are worried, she said, but they should not give in to their fears.

"If people start avoiding these places, that's not going to make the situation better," Hayes said.

Patrons of Northwoods Mall shared a similar diversity of opinions with some stating that they no longer felt safe or welcome and others stating they will continue to shop there but be more cautious.

Robert Boofer, 73, was at the mall when the shooting started on Feb. 22.

A pastor at Journey Baptist Church in North Charleston, Boofer said he walks at the mall every day, except Sundays.

"All of a sudden people start yelling and running," he said. "You could see the panic on people's faces. I didn't know where the shooter was."

Boofer said he can see that the mall has changed over the years, recalling that in the 1990s there seemed to be a friendlier atmosphere that exuded "hometown spirit."

Now, the environment has changed into one where people avoid eye contact and generally aren't inviting, he said.

Although Boofer considered taking his walking routine somewhere else, he ultimately decided to continue at Northwoods.

"I'm going to go ahead and walk, but I'm going to be more cautious," Boofer said. "Now (the shooting's) going to be in my mind."

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.