CHEEKTOWAGA – Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack says there will be an increase in uniform and undercover police officers, mall security personnel, and community partners for the remainder of the holiday shopping season to ensure the safety of Walden Galleria patrons after several hundred unsupervised adolescents disrupted business Wednesday night.
Starting around 6:30 pm, at least three fights broke out minutes apart from each other at various locations throughout the mall’s sprawling property sparking off a chain of events which, around an hour later, led to a large metal sign getting knocked over causing a sound similar to a gunshot. This sent patrons into a panic.
Cheektowaga Police had a mall detail deployed at the time consisting of seven on-duty officers, plus two off-duty officers working for Regal Cinemas.
“These officers are trained. They know what gunshots sound like and with the echo in there, they definitely felt that a shot had been fired, and when you take into totality that there was a report of someone in the vicinity possibly carrying a weapon, you have to err on the side of caution and that’s what the officers did,” Mr. Zack said.
Officers patrolling the town and several neighboring law enforcement agencies hearing the shots fired report over the police radio, shifted resources to the mall under an active shooter protocol. Officers quickly located the source of the sound and relayed to all officers that it wasn’t a gunshot.
The mall patrons, including several hundred adolescents, went into a panic causing chaos in the process. Many stores closed by following the pre-established active shooter procedures put in place by the police and mall.
Several handbags were stolen from the Michael Kors store during the chaos. Mr. Zack says detectives will be releasing the suspect’s photo in the coming days to assist in obtaining an arrest.
One adolescent was arrested and charged with Harassment for hitting Cheektowaga Police Captain Scott Pilat with a sign during a fight. A second arrest was made for Disorderly Conduct. Police did not have the exact details available surrounding that arrest during a press conference Thursday afternoon. Six other adolescents were transported to the police station to be picked up by their parents.
“Rest assured, if they got collared and escorted out, they needed it,” said Mr. Zack. “They got brought [to the police station], and all were reunited with family members and sent on their way. Clearly, anything that they did, did not rise to the level of criminal responsibility.”
To return order to the mall, Cheektowaga Police officers were assisted by Customs and Border Protection, New York State Police, NFTA Police, City of Buffalo Police, Amherst Police, Depew Police, and West Seneca Police. Amherst Police provided police services to the north side of town while Amherst Police covered the south side.
The police and mall management held a meeting Thursday morning to discuss how this mayhem could be prevented in the future.
“I think if you go over there tonight and see the end result, you’ll see that it was very productive. We will probably have close to 25 officers there tonight,” added Mr. Zack.
A record number of officers for a mall detail according to the police chief. He says the officers will not be pulled from routine patrol and the Walden Galleria is going to pay for all costs associated with having the officers on their property. The local community organization Peacekeepers may also have a presence at the mall.
A previous version of this article said the community organization F.A.T.H.E.R.S. may have a presence at the mall.
Pyramid Corporation, the mall’s management company released a statement Thursday afternoon saying, “Safety is and remains our highest priority at Walden Galleria. The incidents that took place between disorderly youth acquaintances are absolutely unacceptable, incredibly disruptive and undermine the tireless efforts made by our security team, community partners and local law enforcement agencies to make Walden Galleria a year-round family-friendly destination. We are cooperating fully and actively participating with the Cheektowaga Police department in the ongoing investigation and remain committed to providing a safe environment for our guests, employees and tenants.”
The mall added that it supports the increased police and security presence and will “strictly enforce” its parental escort policy. Guests under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian 21 years of age or older from 4:00 pm until close on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Mr. Zack says discussions on changing the escort policy times are on the negotiation table with mall management.
“You’re working with a private entity. We do not have the authority to impose anything on Walden Galleria,” Mr. Zack says. “All we can do is go to them and express our desires and what we think the needs would be.”
Councilmember Christine Adamczyk attended the press conference Thursday. Speaking to Cheektowaga Chronicle afterward, she says speaking as a resident and taxpayer of Cheektowaga and not in her official capacity, the mall’s escort policy should be implemented seven days a week.
“Personally, as a resident going into that mall, yes, I feel a seven-day curfew is needed for the children,” said Ms. Adamczyk. “I have to stand by what our police department is doing, and they’re doing a phenomenal job right now. Until the mall decides to step it up and do something different, I would encourage mall security to take that curfew and make it seven days.”
Chief Zack says working with the mall is a political tightrope and changes can have lasting effects.
“You want safety, but you don’t want to look like an occupying force because that frightens people as well, so you’re trying to strike the balance which is very difficult to do. You see the same thing at New Era Field on football Sundays,” he says. “As a community, we have to remember the importance of Walden Galleria as an economic driving factor of this region and that mall must succeed. Our community depends on the dollars and tax revenue that is generated there.”
He says you can see this rowdiness at any mall in the USA. The difference is the Walden Galleria is in Cheektowaga.
“We still talk about the Build-a-Bear riots from this past summer. Globally, malls were inundated and shutting down, of course, the Galleria stayed open, and everybody got their bears. That was because the Cheektowaga Police was there and took care of it. We’ll take credit for that,” Mr. Zack said.
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