Law enforcement seeks to reassure rattled public

Local police in many communities around the country hit multiplexes over the weekend to make moviegoers feel a little safer as they flocked to screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises” — and such measures are expected to remain in place for a couple of weeks in some cases.

Squad cars were parked outside movie theaters in Portland, Ore., Youngstown, Ohio, and the Chicago suburbs. Bags and purses were searched in a few cases. Masks and costumes were banned at many national exhib chains, including AMC. Plainclothes and uniformed officers were dispatched to cinemas around the country.

One man in Phoenix took his personal security into his own hands, smuggling his handgun into the theater.

Law enforcement and exhib reactions to the early Friday shooting in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead and 59 wounded ranged from proactive police presence to no changes at all — particularly in places where uniformed patrols are already part of the routine.

“We have our own security force in place at the Eastwood Mall Complex,” Joe Bell, spokesman for the Youngstown-area venue told WYTV. “They have their own security here at the theater. We know the Niles Police Dept. is a frequent visitor through here keeping an eye on the property. So, there’s multiple layers of security.”

Homeland Security officials in Washington said they were working with the National Assn. of Theater Owners on a security checklist and held a conference call with officials from the commercial, entertainment and shopping mall industries over the weekend. Though it would seem that security could become a pressing issue for NATO, the org stressed that individual exhibitors would ultimately be responsible for any new measures or policies.

While fear of a copycat attack was cited, most said they were taking steps to be more visible to put people at ease, like the patrol car posted all weekend outside the Regal Cinema in North Buffalo. “We have no known threat, but for public safety, public perception, we want people to know it’s safe to come to the theaters,” Buffalo police commissioner Daniel Derenda told Buffalo’s WIBV-TV.

In the Connecticut community of Berlin, deputy chief John Klett said extra patrols were assigned to the Rave Berlin 12 where “The Dark Night Rises” is playing even though it’s already part of the beat.

“The movie theater is part of our proactive patrol on a regular basis,” said Plainville, Conn., police chief Matthew Catania. “We are at a heightened sense of awareness because of what happened in Colorado.”

Not satisfied with just the usual added weekend security at the Wynnsong Cinemas in West Mobile, Ala., Shannon Martin said she got a refund for her pre-bought tickets — her two sons would have to wait to see “The Dark Knight Rises” until she has more peace of mind.

At the AMC in Amherst, N.Y., moviegoer Jack Toepper said out of safety concerns, he came to “The Dark Knight Rises” alone: “I did not bring my pregnant wife today because she was afraid of copycat crimes,” he told WIBV. “I don’t think we’re going to see any.”

Off-duty officers already patrol the new AMC theater in the northwestern Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect, but police officials there planned a stepped-up presence for at least the next couple of weeks. “We will have more of a visibility as a result,” Mt. Prospect police commander Mike Eterno said. “This seems like an isolated incident but we want to take a proactive stance.”

Police say James Holmes, a 24-year-old student from San Diego who had been living in Aurora, propped open a rear entrance to the theater during a midnight Friday screening and began his attack. Police said Holmes, wearing riot gear and a gas mask, tossed in two canisters of crowd-control gas and opened fire, using a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun to kill 12 people and wound 58 others, many critically.

He was arrested without incident in the parking lot at the back of the theater and is expected in court sometime this week. Police sources told the Los Angeles Times that Holmes’ student-housing apartment was decorated with Batman paraphernalia and extensively rigged with trip wires and booby traps linked to more than 30 improvised grenades and other explosives.

“Most people will see this for what it is: a sad, mentally deranged rogue,” Warren Theaters prexy Bill Warren told the Kansas City Star. “I don’t know that this will affect our business, but on the other hand I’ve got a moral responsibility to make doubly sure that our customers are safe.”

But in the wake of the shooting, not everyone was willing to chance it — or put their faith in theater security.

“In the state of Arizona, you’re allowed to protect yourself. And I plan to do that throughout the movie,” 23-year-old Ben Wilks told the Arizona Republic, admitting that he was carrying a concealed weapon into the Harkins Christown in Phoenix — despite its clearly stated weapons ban.

(Dirk Mathison contributed to this report.)

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