By Katie Rogers, nytimes.com
Officer Tamara Valle of the Fort Worth Police Department received a call on Monday: A fight had broken out in the food court of the nearby Hulen Mall, and 200 teenagers were running, screaming and fighting. Shopkeepers were going into lockdown, slamming their gates shut with customers still inside.
As Officer Valle drove to the mall, she received another message: At least four or five similar scenes were unfolding hundreds of miles away from Texas, on the East Coast.
By the time the night was over, at least 15 fights had broken out at malls across the United States, cropping up in shopping centers spanning from Connecticut to Arizona. Videos posted to social media showed throngs of teenagers twisting like tornadoes through malls in Tennessee and Ohio, running to and fro as bystanders pulled out their phones and, in some cases, uploaded the images to the world.
smh they was shooting in Beachwood Mall (Cleveland) pic.twitter.com/I8TjjsUPZB
— 🎼 ONG BIG SHANE© 💨 (@BigShane337) December 27, 2016
Officers at several departments suspect that the episodes were loosely organized on social media, though they can’t prove it yet. In Aurora, Colo., the police heard through an anonymous tip that a Facebook post had told of a fight at The Town Center mall.
“We haven’t actually seen the post,” Sergeant Chris Amsler, a spokesman with the Aurora Police Department, said in an interview. “We don’t know whether that’s true whether or not that exists.”
Other officers, like Capt. Gary Haba of the Beachwood Police Department in Beachwood, Ohio, believe the more likely common thread is that teenagers have too much time on their hands during the holiday break, and just enough freedom to head to the nearest shopping center — especially if they think they’ll encounter a lively scene.
“I don’t think there’s Dr. Evil sitting around in some chair somewhere directing everybody to do this,” Captain Haba said on Tuesday. “It just seemed like kids showed up and they were waiting to start seeing some mayhem.”
The day before, the Beachwood Police had responded to a fight at Beachwood Place, an upscale shopping mall. Officers estimated that around 500 people, mostly teenagers, were involved. Police officers from at least three surrounding jurisdictions worked for more than an hour to corral people and push them outside.
At least one officer used pepper spray to subdue people who were fighting, and one juvenile was arrested and accused of pushing a police officer, Captain Haba said.
Some 560 miles away, a similar situation was unfolding at The Shoppes at Buckland Hills in Manchester, Conn. Hundreds of teenagers were mobbing the mall and stores, forcing the the mall to close early.
“Even the officers that were up there sensed that something was different” before a fight broke out, Capt. Christopher Davis, a spokesman with the Manchester Police Department, said in a phone interview. “They just sensed that something was in the air, per se, that something didn’t seem right.”
At that mall, Captain Davis said that so many teenagers had arrived that additional city buses had to be called in to transport all of them home. Five juveniles and two adults were arrested for fighting or interfering with police officers, he said.
The day after Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the year, luring shoppers who seek to return unwanted stocking stuffers, swipe their new gift cards and search for after-holiday sales. For some officers, the chaos took on the characteristics of so-called flash mobs, gatherings loosely organized on social media with the express purpose of causing mayhem. Unseasonably warm weather in some places may have played a role, too, the police speculated. It was around 65 degrees in Indianapolis, where fights broke out at Castleton Square Shopping Center.
It’s not uncommon for mayhem to take place on Dec. 26. On that day in 2013, more than 300 teenagers gathered at Kings Plaza in Brooklyn, where they fought, yelled and slammed shop doors.
This year, mall employees across the country were busy posting to Facebook on Monday night, advising that hours had been changed and stores had closed down. Requests to companies that own or lease several of the malls, including Simon Property Group, CBL & Associates Properties and General Growth Properties, did not respond to request for comment on Tuesday.
In total, fights were reported in at least a dozen states, with two episodes in Connecticut and three in Tennessee. Fights were also reported at malls in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, New Jersey, Indiana, Colorado and Texas. And a fight that broke out at Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island resulted in more than 70 calls placed to 911 by people who mistakenly thought they’d heard gunshots, according to a CBS affiliate in New York.
A little bit of mischief can escalate into a full-scale police response: In Fort Worth, reports of shots being fired coincided with the mobs and fights, Officer Valle said, leading to responses from the SWAT team and the department’s gang investigation unit. But no one was arrested, and about an hour later, the chaos had subsided.
Parents arrived to pick their children up from the curbside, and others caught buses home.