On the day after Christmas, multiple brawls and what sounded like a gunshot sent crowds at the region's largest shopping mall scrambling in a panic as some believed there may have been an "active shooter."
The scene at the Walden Galleria was captured on video that went viral.
The day after the incident, Cheektowaga Police Chief David J. Zack summarized, "We have a problem that needs addressing."
Nearly three months later, Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence group that works with young people, has been given an expanded role in security efforts at the mall. And the Cheektowaga Police Department has recommended that mall management expand its parental escort policy for those under 18.
The brawls among young people on the evening of Dec. 26 turned a busy shopping night at one of the region's most recognized destinations into a spectacle. Police received 22 calls for fights at the mall that night, but officials believe they took multiple calls for the same incidents. Amidst the commotion, a metal sign inside the mall fell, causing many to believe they heard a gunshot. Law enforcement agencies from across the county responded to the scene. No injuries were reported or weapons recovered.
In the end, police arrested an 18-year-old and a juvenile, while six other juveniles were taken to Cheektowaga Police Headquarters and released to their parents.
In the immediate aftermath, police presence got a boost at the mall, and mall management said it would review its chaperone policy. Two requests for comment from mall management on Friday were not returned. The mall is owned by Pyramid Management Group.
Buffalo Peacemakers, an umbrella organization of violence prevention groups, now have a regular presence at the Cheektowaga mall. That follows a suggestion by Zack after the incident that the mall consider redeveloping its relationship with the organization.
James Giles, CEO of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries, which includes the Buffalo Peacemakers as one of its community programs, said the members are often better equipped than police or professional security to handle such skirmishes.
“It’s just a different dynamic, because we know the kids. These are the same children that we’re dealing with on the corners every day that are coming out there causing disruptions,” said Giles.
“We know them. They know that we know them, so there is less resistance when we say, ‘listen, y’all, break it up,’” Giles added.
Members of the Peacemakers and other associated groups have been utilized at the mall in previous years, though their members have previously been volunteers. But they haven't been utilized as much recently, Zack said.
The Peacemakers describe themselves as providers of a proactive intervention program to break the cycle of violence in gang-involved or at-risk youth. The group works to mentor young people, as well as build relationships, gather information and mediate gang conflicts, the organization says on its website.
Zack said he was not familiar with the details of the agreement between the mall and Buffalo Peacemakers, but he said the organization is now paid for its efforts.
Giles on Friday confirmed that the new arrangement between the Peacemakers and Pyramid Management is a paid one. Giles said he collaborated with law enforcement to determine when and how much security coverage would be required by Peacekeepers.
As part of its ongoing efforts, the police department reviewed incident data from the mall from 2013 through last year to see if it could see patterns historically when things at the mall turned problematic, Zack said in an interview Thursday.
But what police found was little definitive data. Aside from the busy holiday shopping season, the record of disturbances at the mall is "completely random," Zack said.
"Other than this Christmas season, it's a quiet place," he said.
The department will continue to crunch the numbers going forward as it monitors activity at the mall, but without any data to back it up, Zack said there's no need to boost police presence at the Galleria outside the holidays, when the department has traditionally assigned additional personnel.
There will still occasionally be the "sensational" type of events that get captured on video and played on the 6 o'clock news, Zack said, but they remain "isolated incidents."
"It makes great TV but it doesn't paint the true picture where the numbers, the data paint the picture of what goes on there," he said.
Parental escort policy
The Walden Galleria's existing parental escort policy is in effect from 4 p.m. until closing Fridays and Saturdays. It requires guests under 18 be accompanied by a parent or guardian who is 21 or older. The policy applies to only those stores that do not have exterior entrances.
Cheektowaga police have recommended to mall management they look at expanding the policy, Zack said.
Though he did not provide details on what he thinks the mall should do, he said any changes should be precisely configured to be "as minimal as possible."
"We really have to narrow it down to what makes security sense without disrupting the commerce that takes place," he said.
The police department has no authority to require a change in the mall's policy, the chief said.
Zack acknowledged what an expansion of the policy might mean for some of the stores and other businesses in the mall – clamping down at certain times could impact specific businesses more acutely, which would hit the bottom lines of some companies.
"There's a lot of moving parts here," Zack said.
The chief said he doesn't expect to see any changes until later this year, as the warmer weather is coming and the mall moves into a slower time of the year.
"This will be the big conversation come next fall, because that’s when the data shows that we have to become most concerned of a major incident," Zack said.
In the Dec. 26 incident at the mall, 80 to 90 percent of the stores "did well" with the lockdown procedures put into effect, according to police. Zack credited the regular drills conducted by police in conjunction with mall management.
He also said there's nothing he would change about how police responded to the event.
The department did not make mass arrests; nobody got hurt; the department received no complaints and there were no allegations of mistreatment by officers, Zack said.
"For us, that's a success," he said.
The chief also said he believes the community should have a dialogue about the importance of the Walden Galleria, especially to Erie County's coffers, through the tax revenue generated there.
When there are high-profile incidents, the mall is seen as "Cheektowaga's problem," Zack said.
"If it goes away," he said, "it's everybody's problem."
News staff reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.