Jerry Davich: Will shooting at mall change anything?
Jerry Davich email@example.com November 17, 2012 6:52PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 19, 2012 11:58AM
Was the recent shooting incident at Westfield Southlake mall a legitimate warning shot to us about public safety at that popular shopping mecca?
Possibly it was a canary in the proverbial coal mine, alerting us to potential dangers there, especially with Black Friday coming up this week.
Or, as I believe, are too many of us overreacting with a knee-jerk, “sky is falling” attitude to this?
I asked similar questions to shoppers, mall workers and law enforcement. The feedback was divided, as you might guess. But one thing is for sure — that single shot into a ceiling tile at the mall fired from a teenage knucklehead — sure grabbed our attention.
“Anytime you have a heavy concentration of people, particularly young people, there are going to be problems,” explained Hobart Police Chief Jeff White. “As with any retail area, we’ve always cautioned shoppers to be vigilant, use common sense and trust their instincts.”
“For the most part, shoppers that do this will find they encounter very few problems,” he added.
I completely agree with White’s assessment and his future outlook about that very busy mall, as well as other shopping centers that attract teens.
According to the mall’s own data, Westfield Southlake gets more than 7.5 million customer visits each year to its 175 or so retailers. That’s a lot of people, including a ton of teens, who walk, shop or loiter at that mall.
I’ve been there on weekend evenings. It often resembles a singles bar for area youths. And when you get heavy pockets of loitering teens congregating at certain points, it raises eyebrows from casual shoppers. Especially those with young children. As it should.
“As far as the mall, it is not immune to the same problems we’ve experienced elsewhere in the U.S. 30 retail corridor,” White said. “Years ago, it started with Stardust bowling lanes.”
There, groups of teens would congregate with no intention of bowling or even spending money, and sooner than later it became a problem. Outbreaks of violence required a “major response” from police, the chief noted.
“Not too many years ago, the same situation occurred at the movie theaters and that problem spilled over into area restaurants,” White said. “As these problems arose, management of the various establishments instituted adult supervision policies as well as limiting the amount of underage kids within establishments at any given time.”
That is possibly the kind of policy that the mall will also employ. I don’t know because the mall’s management did not respond to me for this column. But mall workers immediately replied to me, and they had plenty to say.
Mall of America’s policy?
“We’re not having wild west shootouts in the mall. That seems to be a lot of what I’m hearing some people make this incident sound like. It’s ridiculous,” said Shaun Parent, an assistant manager at the As Seen On TV store.
“The only people who should be to blame for this specific incident are those directly involved and their parents. Someone obviously wasn’t doing their parental duties when the one kid brought a gun here,” he added.
“Honestly, I really don’t see a ton of problems regarding young people during weekdays. Maybe an incident or two where a group is being loud and boisterous that gets either kicked out of a store or were asked to leave the mall. Those are usually during the evening hours of the mall,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t chronic problems, noted Parent, who has worked there since 2004.
“I would still like to see the mall improve their security presence on weekdays, and in the (parking) lot outside,” he said.
Another mall employee, who works part time at JB Robinson Jewelers, echoed the feelings of other mall workers, saying management should institute a policy similar to that of Mall of America in Minnesota.
“We welcome all youth to Mall of America, however on Friday and Saturday evenings, youth under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult 21 years or older from 4 p.m. until close,” the mall’s security policy states.
“One adult may supervise up to 10 youth. During the Parental Escort hours, anyone 21 years or younger should be prepared to show a Mall of America employee identification card.”
Should Westfield Southlake adopt a similar policy? It sure couldn’t hurt. It also would serve as a marketing tool to at least appear as if the mall cares about its customer base.
“Our Police Department will be meeting with mall management to discuss this incident, and other issues they’ve experienced with young crowds,” White noted. “We will make suggestions that we’ve seen work in the past from other retailers, but in the end it will be management’s decision on policy changes.”
Shoppers speak out
“In this day and age, this could have occurred anywhere,” said Ruth Lavery, a teacher from Valparaiso who went shopping at the mall the day after the shooting.
“We shouldn’t be forced to live scared because of some bad apples,” said Elle Gardner.
“People live in fear. I refuse to,” said Warren Tipton, of Merrillville. “I’ll go to that mall whenever I please.”
It’s a different story for parents of young kids or teens.
“I will probably limit my shopping to weekdays during the daytime, especially if I’m shopping alone,” said Sandy M., of Valparaiso. “I used to let my 15-year-old son shop on his own and call me on his cell phone when he was ready to meet up with me. Now I’m not so sure.
“I’ve been out there when there have been groups of kids yelling across the mall at each other and you wonder if it’s going to escalate to something more violent.”
“It hit a little too close to home,” said Jill B., who works in Merrillville. “I can’t even begin to imagine how traumatizing that must’ve been for the little kids in the mall.”
Some people used this incident to touch on broader issues such as teen angst, parental accountability and gun control.
“It is so sad all of us should have to feel like this,” said Cindy Ellison Badten, of Portage. “We need to take back control. We have to stop the madness. We need to force our politicians and law enforcement to enforce the gun laws that are on the books.”
True, but more to the point of today’s column, should shoppers be more worried than usual about another similar incident at the mall? I say no. To put a positive twist on that shooting, which injured nobody, it not only prompted shoppers to expand their dialogue, it also prompted police (and hopefully mall management) to refocus their efforts.
“The Hobart Police Department will work with any retailer to solve the problems of congregating teens — however this department will not tolerate teens with guns,” White said. “There is only one gang in Hobart and they wear police blue.”
“We will aggressively pursue any teen that believes they can harass, intimidate, or otherwise jeopardize public safety, including Westfield Southlake mall. We will pull out all stops in protecting Hobart’s citizens and visitors.”
On a side note, several readers have noted how quickly news of the shooting became viral on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I was attending a wedding last Saturday night, and I learned about the shooting via multiple posts such as this one: “SHOOTING AT SOUTHLAKE MALL! DOZENS OF COP CARS! NO IDEA HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE HURT OR KILLED.”
Really? Without any facts at hand? Really?
It certainly grabbed my attention. But did those online posts help raise awareness or only help to flame the fires of cyber-hysteria?
“While social media have their advantages in reaching mass audiences in seconds to spread word of ongoing events such as the mall shooting, we have to ask ourselves are these outlets being used as such? Or is this just the newest way for people to achieve their own personal 15 minutes of fame?” one reader asked.
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