Monday, August 24, 2015

Movie Theater Checking Bags for “Security” of Patrons Looks More Like a Cheap Ploy to Sell More Overpriced Candy

When our family went to see “Fantastic Four” last week (don’t bother…), the teenage girl taking tickets asked to search my wife’s purse. When we asked her why, she explained that it was for “security”. Oddly, while she searched my wife’s purse, the rent-a-cop (actually, an off duty police officer from a small town nearby) stood nearby and looked on, but didn’t offer the teenage employee any assistance in her search of the purse.

Subsequent to this episode, we learned that Regal Entertainment Group (owner of Regal Cinemas) had enacted a security policy:


Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America. Regal Entertainment Group wants our customers and staff to feel comfortable and safe when visiting or working in our theatres. To ensure the safety of our guests and employees, backpacks and bags of any kind are subject to inspection prior to admission. We acknowledge that this procedure can cause some inconvenience and that it is not without flaws, but hope these are minor in comparison to increased safety.

Now, I have no problem with reasonable enhanced security. In part as a result of the massive quantity of guns in our society, we now live in a country where any place can become a scene of mass carnage at virtually any time. So if a brief check of bags and backpacks will help keep me and my family safe, then I’m all for it.

However, when it comes to this new policy enacted by Regal Entertainment Group (hereafter referred to just as “Regal”), I have only one response: Bullshit.

This policy has nothing to do with real security. Rather, it is either a cynical way to exploit fears of violence in theaters (“Look, we’re doing something about it!”) or, more likely, a subterfuge for enforcing a different policy altogether:

Outside Food or Drink:

No outside food or drink is permitted in the theatre.

What leads me to these conclusions? Let’s consider the policy and its implementation. I think that it’s fairly safe to presume that the “[s]ecurity issues” that “have become a daily part of our lives” is a reference to the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting and the two theater shootings (or attempted shootings) this year in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Nashville, Tennessee.

So, my first question is whether a search of patrons’ bags and backpacks would have stopped any of these incidents? In the case of the shooting in Aurora, the shooter left the theater via an emergency exit which he propped open in order to retrieve his guns from his car. So obviously, a bag search would not have turned up anything, would it? In the Lafayette shooting, the shooter was armed with a handgun. I have been unable to determine whether it was in a bag or just in his pocket, a holster, or otherwise concealed on his body. In the case of the Nashville attempted shooting, the shooter did have two bags. One had an Airsoft BB gun and a hatchet; the other bag had what appeared to be an explosive device. And that leads inevitably to the next question: What would have happened had a teenage employee (especially a very slight girl, like the one who searched my wife’s purse) asked to open one of those bags?

Thus, consider the efficacy of a bag search by a teenager (or any employee not given appropriate training). Will that deter someone intent on committing mass violence? And ask what sort of training that teenage employee has taken. What are they told to do if a patron refuses a bag search or gets belligerent? What are they told to do if the patron claims that they are being discriminated against? What are they to do with a backpack that appears to contain jackets or sweatshirts? Are they expected to pull those out to be sure that no weapons are hidden in or below them? What are they told to do if they find a gun or knife, let alone an explosive device? Run screaming? Calmly tell the patron that they can’t bring the gun into the theater?* Go ahead, roll that scenario through your mind and tell me how it ends. Oh, and ask yourself why Regal is entrusting this sort of “security” to its teenage employees instead of to (hopefully trained) security guards or off-duty police officers?

*By the way, I read through Regal’s Admittance Procedures (so you don’t have to). There is the aforementioned prohibition on outside food and drink. And there are prohibitions on smoking and on the use of recording devices.There is even a request for patrons to avoid using their cellphones. But guess what? There is no prohibition on bringing firearms, knives, or any other sort of weapon into a Regal theater. So even if that employee finds a gun in a woman’s purse, the woman can argue that she should be entitled to admission to the theater because there is no prohibition against bringing a gun.

But that isn’t the end of the problems with the security policy; far from it.

Consider this: Who is most likely to carry a bag into a theater? The answer to that would seem to be women with their purses. How many men carry a bag, even a backpack, into a theater? Not many, I’d wager. Yet the one factor that all of the theater shootings (and most of the mass shootings, no matter where committed) have in common is that they were committed by men. Thus, by limiting searches to backpacks and bags, Regal is selectively targeting for inspection those who seem least likely to constitute security threats. Will men with bulky jackets be searched to see if they have a gun secreted on their person? Will men with cargo pants be asked to empty their pockets to be sure that they don’t have a gun or knife? Will men be asked to raise their shirts to allow the theater employee to see if they are wearing a holster or have a gun stuffed into the waistband of their pants? Of course not.

And think about this: There is no attempt to profile the type of person who might be likely to commit an act of mass violence. I’m not talking about racial profiling; rather, how about profiling people who come into the theater by themselves, especially if they look … oh, I don’t know … crazy? Or maybe single people who come into the theater after the movie has begun. Perhaps groups of young people who appear to be part of a gang or anyone who appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Compare that sort of profiling to the search conducted of my wife’s purse; is there really a suspicion that a family of four, including two children, intends to commit an act of violence or threaten the safety and security of other patrons?

Oh, and one Indiana-specific side note: As a result of some of the NRA-inspired idiocy from our General Assembly, Regal is allowed to prohibit patrons from bringing guns into the theater (even if they don’t appear to have adopted such a policy) but cannot prohibit employees from having guns in their cars in the parking lot. In fact, Regal cannot even ask employees about possession of a gun. I wonder whether Regal is searching its employees when they come to work to be sure that they left their guns in their cars. And if not, why not? That’s a good question to ask a manager at Regal.

If a bag search isn’t likely to deter someone intent on mass violence and isn’t aimed at those most likely to commit mass violence, then what is its real purpose?

Perhaps Regal just wants people to think that Regal takes security seriously. Perhaps the thinking in the Regal boardroom went like this: “Hey, if people think that they are safer in our theaters, then maybe they’ll come to our theaters instead of those owned by our competitors where they don’t check bags. Who cares if our safety is bullshit, so long as it helps us sell more tickets!” Yeah, I know that sounds unfair. But if that isn’t the explanation, and if Regal really cared about safety, then wouldn’t the security policy be designed so as to be effective and be implemented in a way that might work without putting teenage employees at risk? For that matter, wouldn’t Regal have also enacted a “no weapons” policy?

Which brings me to what I believe is the real intent of the security policy: Regal wants to make more money by selling more candy and drinks and the best way to do that is to search bags and backpacks to be sure that people aren’t bringing contraband food and beverages into the theater. It’s hard to hide an AR-15 in a backpack or purse, but it’s easy to hide a box of Sno-Caps and a bottle of Coke; similarly, it’s easy to hide a handgun in a pocket or the waistband of a pair of pants, but it’s not as easy to conceal that same bottle of Coke.

I don’t think the security policy is really designed to keep anyone safe; if that is the intent of the policy, then someone really didn’t think it through very well (I wonder if Regal purchased extra insurance for the employees tasked with searching bags). Instead, I think that the intent is to be sure that patrons don’t try to sneak candy or drinks into the theater in hopes that Regal can sell a few more boxes of horribly overpriced goodies.

Incidentally, I’m not the only one to reach these conclusions. I came across the following after I’d written the bulk of this post (while I was checking some of the information related to the prior theater shootings):

Jeff Bock, box office analyst for theater-industry research firm Exhibitor Relations, predicted the policy will lower the anxiety of theatergoers but could pose other problems.

“Implementing this is probably a good idea,” he said. “But it seems undercooked. How is this going to work? The protocol needs to be defined. Exactly what are they doing and what kind of training are you giving to employees?

“It’s a pretty big thing to ask for 16-year-old employees to search through bags for possible firearms. This kind of changes the duties of a theater employee from making popcorn and sweeping floors to basically being a low-rent security guard. Maybe this falls to the manager of the theater to search … We now have to deal with the consequences of what if they find something in the bag.

“Obviously, all the people who sneak in Subway sandwiches are going to be mortified,” Bock added. “Maybe that’s the Regal ulterior motive. Stopping illegal Milk Duds from getting into theaters.”

One more quick point: If you are a woman going to a movie at a Regal theater and an employee asks to search your purse, I’d ask for the manager and then ask why only women (seemingly, at least) are being subjected to the policy. Ask why your husband or boyfriend isn’t being frisked or made to empty his pockets. Put the onus on Regal to explain why they’ve implemented a policy which, in effect, discriminates against women (especially women with children!) and subjects them to a heightened degree of scrutiny and an invasion of privacy to which men are not subject. Yes, Regal may claim that it wants to keep its patrons safe, but I doubt very much that it will relish a backlash from angry women who have had their purses ransacked by teenagers.

I can’t end this post without disclosing and noting my own prior history with Regal Entertainment Group: Regal Cinema's Disregard for Patrons and Films (June 30, 2008) and Regal Cinema's Disregard for Patrons and Films (update) a/k/a When Disney Talks, Regal Listens (July 2, 2008).

Updated August 25, 2015 to correct a typo.

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