It seemed like a typical Saturday evening at the Westfield shopping mall in Culver City, until chaos erupted.
False reports began to spread about a gunman in the mall on Jan. 7, prompting shoppers to flee and bringing a huge response from local police. There was no shooter, but officers who arrived at the scene found about 200 teenagers outside the shopping center, many fighting with each other.
It took hours for police to sort it all out, with some shoppers spending the entire time on lockdown inside stores. In the end, authorities concluded that the teens had gathered at the mall, intending to cause a scene, after coordinating via social media.
Culver City is the latest flashpoint in what has become a consuming problem for malls across the country.
For generations, shopping malls have served as second homes for teenagers, and merchants were happy to have them.
But at some shopping centers, the teens have worn out their welcome.
Following a series of high-profile incidents in recent years, more than 100 shopping centers have instituted curfews or bans on unaccompanied minors, according to a trade group. The restrictions often are on Friday and Saturday nights.
In California, Sacramento’s Arden Fair mall banned unaccompanied minors on the day after Christmas as 60,000 shoppers headed to its stores. The mall said it has not ruled out enacting such a ban again.
That action could end up sparking a legal showdown because civil liberties advocates say California law prohibits retailers from banning groups wholesale.
“Malls should not be banning anyone based on blanket generalizations or stereotypes of how teens will behave,” said Michael T. Risher, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Arden Fair is the only California mall to take such action. But elsewhere, the teen bans are gaining a foothold.
Several malls nationwide saw brawls break out during the holidays, and retail intelligence suggested some of the incidents were planned through social media. Philadelphia authorities arrested at least three teenagers after a fight in the food court involving 30 to 40 kids. In Aurora, Ill., eight teens were charged after a large mall disturbance.
Restrictions on teens in malls aren’t new. The Mall of America in Minnesota instituted such an approach in the 1990s. Minors cannot wander America’s largest mall unaccompanied on Friday and Saturday nights.
Versions of such an approach have sprung up across the country, said Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of public relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers. The trade organization is aware of at least 105 of the 1,222 shopping malls in the U.S. having some policy limiting access by minors.
“Owners have to be mindful of the needs of their community, which means they have to consider whether or not curfews and/or parental accompaniment rules are necessary,” Cegielski said. “There is no denying that online shopping is growing and owners do not want to give their consumers a reason to turn to online versus in-store shopping.”
Risher said California’s decades-old law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, prohibits businesses — including shopping centers — from engaging in arbitrary or wholesale discrimination against a specific group, and that includes children. In a letter to the Arden Fair mall, Risher warned that a business must treat people based on their conduct and not because they are part of a category — in this case, minors.
“The fact that some minors may have in the past engaged in illegal conduct does not justify restricting the rights of all minors,” he said.
A Fresno mall tried to institute a similar ban on unaccompanied minors in 2007 but backed down after being rebuked by the ACLU and the Fresno city attorney. The mall then reverted to enforcing the city’s 10 p.m. curfew for minors.
But Arden Fair owners insist they have the right to restrict entry. They argue that teenagers are not a protected class and that they, as owners, have a right to create rules governing the use of their property.
Arden Fair pointed out a series of incidents in which mall managers said teens caused problems. Four years ago, the mall had to be evacuated when teenagers who were fighting knocked down a sign and some shoppers thought it was a gunshot. Mall officials said they took the Dec. 26 action amid concerns that teens were planning more trouble.
On that day, 30 mall security guards and 50 Sacramento police officers were at the shopping center enforcing the ban.
Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman, said no teens were involved in any incidents that day, but there were two fights involving adults.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg asked the city attorney to review the legality of the Arden Fair ban.
Steinberg’s call came after residents told the City Council they believed minorities in particular were being singled out.
“I don’t want them to go to the mall and feel they will be racial profiled,” Pearl Barton, an African American woman, said of her granddaughters. “Why do they need parental guidance?”
The Los Angeles region’s largest mall operators don’t have policies directed specifically at teens. Westfield, which owns the Culver City mall and a dozen other shopping centers across California, requires civility of all its customers and reserves the right to remove anyone for unruly behavior.
Westfield and other large mall operators have a significant security operation, including social media intelligence-gathering. In Los Angeles, the firm employs not only a platoon of mall officers, but it also uses off-duty police officers to bolster safety.
“Security matters are of primary importance, always. While the company does not publicly discuss levels or methods, significant resources are devoted to security arrangements,” said Catharine C. Dickey, Westfield’s executive vice president.
It remains unclear exactly why so many teens converged at the Culver City mall on Jan. 7. But it appears some were drawn by a social media call-out for people to meet there.
“It was on Instagram that it was an event, an Instagram event,” one teen at the mall told KABC-TV. “Everybody just came, and people who saw their enemies fought each other.”