Police in the Baltimore area increased patrols around movie theaters, and local theater owners added security precautions — including banning face masks and fake weapons — after the mass shooting early Friday in suburban Denver sparked fears of copycat attacks.
The shooting rampage at a midnight showing of"The Dark Knight Rises"in Aurora, Colo., shattered the perception of safety in yet another public place in a nation that has seen attacks at schools, shopping centers and workplaces.
Law enforcement officials said they were responding to allay fears, as local moviegoers acknowledged they were keenly aware of the violence 1,700 miles away.
Shaun Nickens said he refused to miss the movie's opening Friday. The 22-year-old from Aberdeen, an avid Batman fan, arrived at the White Marsh theater in his cobalt PT Cruiser with a Batman Bobblehead on his dashboard and a Batman logo on the rear window.
"I woke up and checked the news to see what the weather was like," Nickens said, recounting when he first learned of the Colorado shooting. "I got scared for a second. I thought, 'I am going to see this movie. Is something like this going to happen?' I have been waiting for this movie for so long and that happened thousands of miles away. It couldn't happen where I am at."
"I was like, 'I am going to look at my surroundings and I'll be all right,'" he said.
Police in Baltimore and the surrounding counties increased patrols around local theaters and urged mall and theater officials to report any suspicious activity.
"We have no intelligence to suggest that anything horrific like that would take place in Baltimore, but at the same time we realize the propensity for copycat incidents tends to be high," Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. "We're taking every precaution to make sure people have a safe and enjoyable time at the movies."
In Howard County, Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman, said law enforcement met with movie theater representatives from Snowden Square and The Mall in Columbia to address security issues. Police increased visibility in patrol cars and on bicycles around the theaters, and officials trained in emergency response were sent a department-wide reminder on protocol for shootings, she said.
Local movie theaters also reviewed emergency procedures, and some put new provisions in place. For example, AMC Theatres banned face-covering masks, fake weapons and costumes that could make other guests "feel uncomfortable," company spokesman Ryan Noonan said.
AMC operates the theaters at The Avenue in White Marsh, Owings Mills Town Center and The Mall in Columbia, among others.
"Moviegoing is part of our social fabric, and this senseless act shakes us to our core," Noonan said in a statement. "We are taking necessary precautions to ensure our guests who wish to enjoy a movie this weekend can do so with as much peace of mind as possible in these circumstances."
Ira Miller, owner and operator of Rotunda Cinemas in Hampden said the theater has 24-hour security, cameras to monitor safety and a well-lit parking lot. While Miller said he thinks the chances of a similar violent incident here are slim, he did not dismiss the risk.
"We've got our eyes open just in case," he said. "You're more 'on alert' than you were as of yesterday. It is really very sad, but I don't think it's going to affect anything in Baltimore or anywhere else."
Miller said "The Dark Knight Rises" premiere was one of the year's most anticipated.
And fear of a copycat attacker did not stop many moviegoers in Maryland. James Gee, 32, of Pikesville strolled through Arundel Mills mall with his mother and nephews Friday afternoon with plans to see the latest Batman installment later in the day.
"It's wild; you go to a movie theater to have a good time," Gee said. "For the people going in now, I guarantee they are looking around, making sure they know where the exits are at."
But Gee said he is not worried about his safety, because he sees the movie theater shooting as an isolated incident. "How many have you heard of?" he asked.
Darrell and Deshelle Keller of Glen Burnie didn't have any reservations about bringing their sons, Daquan, 10, and Dejuan, 4, to see "The Dark Knight Rises" on Friday. "The kids wanted to come out, and I am a huge Batman fan, ever since I was a kid," Darrell Keller said. "I'm not concerned."
Nick Francis of Catonsville and two of his longtime friends, Stephen Addis and Mike Chi, all 23, have been Batman fans for as long as they can remember. The three men said they avoided Facebook, Twitter and their smartphones to steer clear of anything that could spoil the blockbuster, but they couldn't avoid news of the shooting.
Francis, Addis and Chi said they were all struck by the parallels between the extreme act of violence in the latest Colorado shooting and the comic book-inspired villains becoming increasingly vicious on the silver screen.
"That's just sad," Addis said.
Still, Addis said, he doesn't think the shooting will tarnish the Batman brand: "It could have been any big box office movie."
Katherine Newman, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said that while details about the shooting and the suspect are still emerging, themes from past rampages could apply.
"Fundamentally, shooters like this are trying to recast themselves as notorious and antiheroes," Newman said. "They have, unfortunately, many popular culture models to draw on."
Newman, a co-author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings," said rampage shooters typically have experienced friction in their lives and may define themselves as "losers" or "social outcasts."
Often, she said, the shooters are less driven by anger and more by the idea they can change their public image into that of someone who is feared or recognized as powerful, rather than inconsequential. The shooters are often prepared to die for their action, as in the "suicide by cop" scenario, she said.
"It's not unusual that they are trying to go out in a blaze of infamous glory," Newman said. "They long to be a superhero."
Jeffrey Lating, a psychology professor and director of clinical training at Loyola University Maryland, said shootings in public settings shake people's fundamental need to feel safe. Theater management and law enforcement should be vocal in the aftermath of an such incident to help relieve the public's anxiety, he said.
"I think we have an inherent desire and need to feel the world is a safe and just place," Lating said. "When that gets shattered, it can be pretty devastating. You don't expect to go to a movie, or work or school and have terrible things happen, and when it does, it strikes at core values for us."
Lating said the Colorado tragedy would be compounded if societal lessons do not emerge.
Bruce Wimmer, director of global consulting for Pinkerton, a division of Securitas Security Services, said the lesson to be learned is that training and emergency response plans are needed. Such plans help to minimize panic and keep people safer, he said.
"You can't expect a theater or a restaurant or a hotel to be Fort Knox, and probably people don't want to go to a hotel or cinema that is like that, but there is a balance," he said. "The key is, how do you react under pressure? You don't react well if you're not trained."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.
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