A series of fights that set off widespread commotion at the Walden Galleria on Wednesday brought new scrutiny to the mall's security polices and the response of Cheektowaga Police.
Police and the mall's owner, Pyramid Management Group, said they are continuing to review what happened Wednesday night, when several fights escalated into a chaotic shopping scene and a partial lockdown of the mall. Among the immediate changes are increased security through the holiday season and a strict enforcement of the mall's "parental escort policy."
Readers and community leaders had questions about what happened and what will be done, including what mall rules are in place for teenagers, why there's no police substation at the shopping center and why NFTA police escorted buses from the site Wednesday night.
Questions were compiled by Digital Engagement Editor Qina Liu and answered by News Reporter Aaron Besecker.
From Terri Dauer Fraser: Isn’t there a rule that says no one under 18 can be left unsupervised?
From Ryan Marie DeSantis: What happened to the “18 and younger with a parent”?
The Walden Galleria has a "parental escort policy" in place from 4 p.m. until the mall closes on Fridays and Saturdays. Under the policy, which mall security is responsible for enforcing, shoppers younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian who is 21 or older. The policy does not apply to stores that have exterior entrances.
"The enforcement of that policy is totally at the discretion of the Galleria, not us," Cheektowaga Police Chief David J. Zack said.
Police and mall management have discussed expanding the policy.
"That solution is on the table with them," he said. "It is being discussed."
From Kimberly Ziemecki Wiatrowski: I want to know what are they going to do to stop this from happening again?
While there's no guarantee such incidents can be prevented, boosting security and having a larger police presence is one way to respond, the police chief said.
"Incidents will happen. They will. And it's how you deal with them in the aftermath," Zack said.
There have been past incidents at the mall. Police in May responded to the mall on a Sunday afternoon after reports of shots being fired in the lot outside Macy's. They found no victims and no damaged vehicles. In 2017, a police officer suffered a concussion and a bite to his hand when youths attacked him while he was breaking up a fight among teenagers. And seven people were arrested in 2015 after a brawl that was recorded and posted to YouTube.
"When incidents occur, we have to try and restore confidence, and that's what we'll do," Zack said. "That'll be what we do moving forward and hopefully we'll be successful."
The size of the crowd on Wednesday night was in the neighborhood of crowd sizes historically at the mall for the day after Christmas, according to police.
"We want safety, but we don't want to look like an occupying force," he said. "It frightens people as well."
From Scott Atherton: Why is there not a police substation in that mall?
Zack said there has been talk about putting a Cheektowaga police substation at the mall "for years and years and years" and there would be "a lot involved with something like that."
"To permanently staff something like that just isn't feasible," the chief told reporters Thursday.
"If you can't do arrests and booking there, it really diminishes the productivity of a facility like that," he said.
Pyramid has been reimbursing the Town of Cheektowaga for the full cost of officers stationed at the mall, though how many officers the company will pay for is the subject of negotiation and fluctuates over time, Zack said.
On Wednesday night, there were seven officers who were paid overtime to work at the mall. That number was boosted to around 25 on Thursday night. The overtime pay rate for an officer is around $65 an hour, Zack said.
Cheektowaga police have never had as many as 25 or so officers stationed at the mall at one time, according to the chief.
Cheektowaga police have no authority to impose specific measures on a private business.
"How much they're willing to pay at the end of the day, that rests with them," Zack said. "But, of course, we can't ignore the dangers that exist. We still have to respond. We can't just say, 'Hey, you know, you'll only pay for three, we're only going to send you three, and then if there's a major thing we're not sending you any more.' We can't do that."
In the past, the mall used some off-duty officers who were paid a lesser rate. Zack said that was found to be ineffective because those officers don't have police radios and don't respond under the same command structure.
"We've encouraged them over time that the best course of action is not to pay off-duty officers as cheap as you can get them, but to make sure that you've got professional, fully equipped officers," Zack said.
It's more effective, the chief said, but the cost is also three or four times greater.
Police officers posted at the mall do not take away from the number of officers on-duty who work on regular patrol shifts in the town, officials said.
In social media posts, Common Council President and local pastor Darius G. Pridgen has raised questions about what happened with Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus service at the mall during the incident Wednesday night. So what did happen?
Multiple NFTA Metro buses were seen outside the mall on Wednesday evening following the fights. The NFTA Transit Police also posted on Twitter at 8:20 p.m. Wednesday that it was escorting NFTA Metro buses "from the mall back into the city."
— NFTA Transit Police (@tapd1404) December 27, 2018
In response to questions, an NFTA spokeswoman initially said: “At the request of Cheektowaga police, we diverted bus service to and from the Galleria for a short time due to the incident. We were back to full service just before 10:00 p.m.”
The spokeswoman later amended that statement, saying it was at the request of police generally, not just Cheektowaga, calling it a “collective decision on the part of police. Transit Police were involved as well.”
Zack, Cheektowaga's police chief, said there was some “confusion” about what happened with bus service. He said town police did not request any diversion of bus service from the mall. Zack said he did not know what police department made that request.
The NFTA spokeswoman said service was diverted for about two hours. Three bus routes were involved, she said. No extra buses were sent to the mall, and buses that left the mall were not at capacity, she said.
When asked about the NFTA police’s tweet, the spokeswoman said, “The Transit Department assisted last night. Our officers escorted the buses that left the Galleria as a safety measure. It is pretty customary during an emotionally charged event.”
There’s a history involving the mall and bus service. In 1995, 17-year-old Cynthia Wiggins of Buffalo was killed crossing Walden Avenue on her way to her job in the mall food court. She had to cross seven lanes of traffic because the mall prohibited public bus access to its property.
Her death led to a lawsuit that drew national attention and protests that the mall discriminated against blacks by banning an inner-city bus route from the mall. The policy was reversed in the late 1990s, and NFTA runs regular bus routes to the Walden Galleria.
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