PGTW: Stop. Hammer Time!

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 19 December 2013, Thursday

Stop. Hammer Time!

The Martilyo Gang struck again last December 15, smashing the glass of jewelry display cases at SM North Edsa mall with hammers and crowbars and making off with an estimated P5 million worth of loot.

The thieves – around five to seven of them – bought the implements inside the mall itself and made their escape by mingling with the holiday crowd.

This is not the first time the hammer-using horde has pulled off a heist of this order. They hit another SM establishment – Megamall – last January, and used a pipe wrench.

The crime group’s seeming imperviousness to capture leads to conjectures of various sorts: Is “You can’t touch this!” their catchphrase because they are in cahoots with figures of authority, whose protection allows these criminals to steal away unapprehended time after time?

Do they have such a low estimation of the crime-fighting capabilities of mall security and the police that they strike when and where they want?

The impunity they displayed last week prompted President Aquino and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas to visit the mall themselves right after the incident. This raised the eyebrows of netizens, who wondered why their presence there was necessary.

Roxas said in response, “It’s better to be criticized that we went rather than be criticized for not going…So it’s okay that we’re criticized that we went to an incident wherein some of our countrymen were put in danger.”

The Palace said the President wanted “to ensure that there would be a proper investigation.”

Let’s break it down.

It is not surprising that top brass should show concern over the incident. It is a peace-and-order situation after all, and the failure to catch the crooks sends a message that perhaps people are not safe inside malls.

How would such a negative perception affect the economy, especially during the busy holiday season? How would it influence how the world sees us, and more concretely, how investors assess the feasibility of doing business here?

Roxas later suggested in a press briefing that “hammers, crowbars, and similar objects” not be given to customers inside malls, but that a claim stub be issued for the item to be claimed outside the premises.

According to other news reports, the Mall Security Managers Association already signed a memorandum of agreement with the Philippine National Police providing for a similar measure after the incident last January, but it was not fully implemented by mall operators.

However, this is a knee-jerk reaction akin to banning knives from kitchens because they can cut the cook. Any heavy tool can be used to smash glass. An untold number of objects can be purchased inside the mall and used as weapons – a baseball bat, tennis racket, heavy skillet. A thick bag can be used to clear glass from the edges of the display cases and haul the stolen goods afterwards.

Banning the sale of certain goods won’t deter criminals – it will just make them think of using other tools and methods. Realistically, it is difficult to prevent someone from attempting a crime using items at hand, but an efficient and well-trained security agency should be able to respond right away and lock down the area.

It is incomprehensible how the Martilyo Gang has gotten away not once, but at least twice. Roxas and the police have said that best practices will be cascaded to mall operators. It is to be hoped that they will learn from this incident and implement stricter security policies while still ensuring that shoppers have an enjoyable experience, because no one wants to indulge in retail therapy under a mall “martial law”-esque atmosphere. It’s no fun not being able to easily buy what you need. It’s no fun being hassled by store security because you’re carrying a big bag.

But now that we can’t readily buy hardware materials from malls, perhaps this will mean a surge of business for the kind of mom-and-pop corner hardware stores we grew up with. That will be good for small enterprises.

Mall security had better break out their best safety dance moves and right speedily, otherwise the message will be that crime does pay – all you need is guts and a fast car to make a get-away.

Meanwhile, the rest of nation is still livin’ on a prayer – that someday it’ll be hammer time in malls again.

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