Seventy-eight people were killed in shootings at U.S. grocery stores between 2000 and 2020, former Department of Homeland Security official Bill Flynn said in an FMI seminar on active-assailant preparedness on May 25. Seventy-eight, before the 10 killed at a King Soopers in Boulder, Colo., in March 2021; one killed at a Stop & Shop in West Hempstead, N.Y., in April 2021; one customer killed and 15 people wounded at a Kroger in Collierville, Tenn., in September 2021; and 10 killed at a Tops Market in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 14.
Today, "Violent extremists pose an elevated threat," said Flynn, who now serves as president of Garda Risk Management and is the co-founder of The Power of Preparedness.
Nearly 10 years after Flynn, while working in infrastructure protection for DHS, got the notification about an active-shooter event at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., "Unfortunately the number of these events continues to trend in a very disturbing upward direction," he said. And in the past two years, a multitude of stressors have run up against an existing atmosphere of political divisiveness and an increase in conspiracy-theory extremism.
What it means for grocery retailers is an increasingly urgent need not only to develop an active-assailant response plan but also to collaborate proactively with local law enforcement and other retailers, said Flynn and FMI VP of Industry Relations Doug Baker.
"If the premise is that stopping these attacks will be impossible, then ensuring that organizations have every tool available to them and associates have the repetitive training and support to ensure [an effective] response and recovery is paramount," Baker said.
Note: FMI's Active Assailant Preparedness and Response Guide for the Food Retail Industry is available free to FMI members and nonmembers.
The repetitive-training part is essential, Flynn said. Providing "in the event of an emergency" instructions isn't enough; retailers must train to their emergency-response plan consistently, he said. Highly visible and color-coded signage indicating store exits and ways to those exits [and/or to a secure lockdown room, as applicable] can help assist both employees and customers, as individuals tend to use the same entrance and exit doors each time they visit a location, Flynn said. "More visibility is going to make it easier for people in those frantic moments," he said.
One recommendation that some in retail have offered, Baker said, is to have employees listen to a recording of a gunshot so that they can better distinguish between the sound of a gun being fired and another noise, such as fireworks or a blown tire.
"This is about mitigating risk," said Flynn. "What we’ve got to do is take the prudent steps we can to identify where the [potential] consequences are the greatest" and address those, he added.
Too often, retailers' first coordinated work with local law enforcement is following an emergency, Flynn stated. He urged grocers and other retailers to reach out to local law-enforcement officials and invite them into their store both for an assessment of overall risk and to speak with employees about emergency response. "Get their insight into what their concerns are in the environment that you’re in," Flynn said—and work with others in the local business community on a regular basis, as well, he recommended.
"Engage with your private-sector partners, help them with what their needs are," he urged. That includes having a mechanism for quickly sharing information on any suspicious behavior observed at the store, Flynn noted. "You’re not an island," he said. "If an event happens at a grocery store, there’s a possibility that [an] adversary has done surveillance at other stores and locations."
The "if you see something, say something" recommendation can truly help save lives, Flynn suggested, citing recent research into workplace violence. "In 92% of workplace violence incidents, at least one individual observed anomalous behavior; they were aware of some ideology; they were aware of grievances that someone had...but in only 25% of those cases did they take the extra step of reporting it to authorities," he said. "This is a huge gap."