As the Madison Police Department and other city officials react to the recently imposed curfew on people under the age of 18 at two local malls, teens say their voices were left out of the conversation about a policy that applies to them.
Last weekend, East Towne and West Towne malls began enforcing the policy, which bars young people from entering without a parent or guardian after 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
East Towne Mall manager Tammy Rozek said the policy came as a result of feedback from customers and mall stores about the behavior of unsupervised youth.
“We took a number of initial steps to curb the inappropriate and disruptive behavior of young people in the mall, including an increased security and police presence, a state-of-the-art security camera system, and more diligent enforcement of our code of conduct,” Rozek said. “Still, the nature of challenges has grown. With the recent escalation of disturbances, we have determined that this policy is the appropriate step to take.
"We believe it will help us maintain a family-friendly, convenient and enjoyable shopping experience."
Youth who work and attend programming at the Lussier Community Center, across the street from West Towne mall, reacted to the ban with disappointment and frustration.
Fade, a rising junior at Shabazz City High School and a former mall employee, said she is not shocked by the new policy, as attitudes toward young people by mall staff were strained.
“The ban is not a surprise for me. Some mall employees have been unhappy about younger kids, especially middle schoolers, at the mall for awhile,” she said. “I would be upset (about the ban) if I was still working there.”
Calls for police service at both malls peak between 4 and 5 p.m. each day, with Fridays and Saturdays being the busiest days of the week, East Police District Capt. Thomas Snyder said.
Calls to the malls range in severity, and the most common call type is a “disturbance,” which ranges from a loud argument to a physical fight, Snyder said. In light of the new curfew, Snyder said police officers would remain visible while acting as a “deterrent to unlawful behavior.”
Ajani Carr and his mother, Dorecia, said they visited both malls the weekend before the curfew was imposed on July 28 to speak to employees and young visitors. Dorecia Carr said, from her conversations, it seems like the new policy is an overreaction to common teen behavior.
“They 'come in together in groups', they 'have radios' and 'cause a ruckus.' That doesn’t sound like criminal activity to me,” she said. “It didn’t seem like it was necessary to put that kind of ban.”
Ajani said that relations between young people and mall staff can improve if adults make an effort to authentically connect with youth.
“I know for a fact the stuff that happens is not as huge as they make it out to be. If we come in loud, talking to each other and having fun, it seems like we are making a ruckus and being destructive, but we are not,” he said. “It’s not a library, it’s a mall. You can’t expect us to come in and be super quiet. All of the people who reacted negatively were either older and white, or did not seem like they connect with kids a lot.”
If a youth refuses to comply with the new rules, that person would be issued a warning from mall security. Failure to comply with the mall rules after being warned could ultimately result in a trespassing offense, Snyder said.
Chief Mike Koval emphasized at a Park Edge/ Park Ridge neighborhood meeting July 25 that the MPD would not enforce the mall’s “house rules." Police presence would have to be the result of a significant issue.
“I don’t want to be a glorified bouncer,” Koval said.
Sky Moss, a recent Memorial High School graduate who now serves as an Americorps volunteer at the Lussier Center, said the ban may further strain relationships between young people of color and officers who enforce the policy.
“I personally hadn’t had anything happen to me in the mall, but I’ve seen mall cops get overly aggressive with young black males especially, about sagging their pants,” Moss said. "Now they have even more power and reason.”
The alders who represent East and West Towne malls are split in their opinions of the curfew. Ald. Samba Baldeh, District 17, said he is concerned the curfew could negatively affect low-income individuals and people of color who frequent the malls.
“(CBL Properties) think that people who are underage cause trouble if they are not accompanied by a parent,” Baldeh said. “I’m not convinced there’s a need to do this.”
Baldeh is also concerned about possible racial profiling and biased enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin agrees and is opposed to the curfew.
State ACLU executive director Chris Ott argues that the new rules “treat young people like criminals when they have not committed a crime.”
“This breaks the trust between youth and law enforcement, reinforces a belief that the criminal justice system is biased and inconsistent, and may push young people into the criminal justice system through receiving municipal tickets for trying to hang out at the mall,” Ott said in a statement.
Some young people fear the policy will be unfairly applied to youth of color.
“When there is a group of young people of color, people stare and ask a lot of questions,” Fade said.
“Even before this ban, (youth of color) were followed around in the mall by security and people seem to be afraid of the kids and expecting them to cause trouble and violence,” said Lydia Hester, 15, a rising sophomore at Madison East High School who led a protest at East Towne Mall on July 23 calling for the mall to rescind the ban.
“There are not a lot of other places in Madison for teenagers to go on weekends or in the evenings. There are not a lot of free places that are safe and indoors for youth, so people go to the mall,” Lydia said.
West side Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, said he supports the new rules.
“There are plenty of places for group activities and the mall, rightly noted, is not one of those facilities,” Skidmore said.
Julia Robles, an Americorps volunteer who also works at the Lussier Center, said many of the community spaces are closed on evenings and weekends when the ban is in effect.
“This space isn’t open to them during those times, so this is not an alternative,” she said.
A search of the city of Madison’s “Out of School Time” program finder shows there are six free and indoor sites across the city that offer programming for teens on Friday and Saturday evenings. Those sites include the Simpson Street Free Press (which has an extensive waiting list), the Goodman Center, the Vera Court Neighborhood Center, UW Space Place, the East Madison Community Center and the Meadowridge Neighborhood Center.
“There is not really that much to do. Everybody is not the same person. You have to realize that you have kids that have (different interests),” said Donovan, 17, a teen at Briarpatch Youth Services. “All kids are not bad, it just comes from when you don’t have anything to do.”
Dorecia Carr agreed.
"A lot of kids that come to the mall are from low-income areas. So, what is there for them to do? The people of Madison are not really sitting down to try to figure out what to do to reach that community,” she said. “I don’t want to blame the city, the city dishes out a lot of money to organizations (for programming,) but something needs to happen because, if we don’t do something, nothing will change.”
Frustrated with the lack of young voices in the decision-making process, Ald. Maurice Cheeks, District 10, said he is “disappointed” and “discouraged” with the curfew. He said the new rules create an unwelcoming space.
“I don’t think making it harder for kids young people in our community to feel welcome in open spaces is productive,” Cheeks said. “I don't think that decision like this is in keeping with our values of the community in terms of trying to be a diverse, welcoming community.”
Lydia said teens across the city were being punished because of the negative actions of a few.
“There are teenagers that do those things, but the majority of us just want to come here to have fun, not to cause any trouble because we know we would not be able to come back,” she said. “It’s a generalization and a misconception.”
East and West Towne Mall managers Tammy Rozek and Megan Ballard were at the July 23 protest and spoke with attendees at length about their concerns.
In an interview with the Cap Times following the protest, the mall managers said they were willing to have a conversation with Madison youth leaders about the new policy. As of publication, the meeting was not scheduled.
Some teens at the Lussier Center said they plan to speak out against the ban, but want to wait until they plan the most effective action.
“Right now we are trying to figure out who can help us and exactly what we want to do, but we definitely want to do something,” said Sophie, a rising junior at Memorial High School.
“There are still questions that we have. We are looking for allies who want to do something similar,” said Kaevan, also a rising junior at Memorial.
For the time being, all of the local youth interviewed said they do not plan to patronize places where they feel unwanted.
“I think after awhile, they will realize it is a bad idea because minors are the only ones who buy stuff from the mall,” said Alex, 15, a teen at Briarpatch.
“Once they see their sales start going down dramatically because they cannot sell to minors, then they are going to realize they made a bad decision.”
“People are serious about money,” Ajani Carr said. “Once businesses start losing money, they will say ‘What can we do to listen to these people?’”