After Ajani Carr — a 14-year-old actor, entrepreneur and youth activist in Madison — and his family were ejected from West Towne Mall last weekend, family and supporters have called into question the role mall security and Madison police played in the incident.
The official police account of the incident and what the Carr family says happened differ sharply. Police escorted Ajani Carr, his mother Dorecia Carr, and five other children under Dorecia’s supervision out of the mall on Saturday evening, following a heated exchange involving Dorecia, Ajani, the mall's director of security and Madison Police Sgt. Shannon Blackamore.
Dorecia Carr asserts that Blackamore told them to leave before mall security had even requested as much, refused to engage with them or answer their questions, and at one point reached for his belt, making the family afraid that he would pull out a taser or weapon of some kind.
Madison Police Department spokesman Joel Despain refuted all those claims, citing the police report filed by Blackamore about the incident.
“(Blackamore) was very professional,” he said. “He treated these people with respect.”
The initial dispute began with mall security over the facility’s new “youth escort policy,” which requires visitors 18 and under to have a parent or guardian escorting them when visiting the mall after 4 p.m. each Friday and Saturday.
Dorecia said she was standing with the children near the mall’s play area when she noticed two security guards talking while pointing in their direction. When she walked over to ask if there was a problem, she said that one of the guards became confrontational.
Dorecia said that guard, director of mall security Rick Nitzsche, began questioning her relationship to the children in an aggressive way. When she tried to ignore him and speak with the second guard, Nitzsche began yelling at her, she said.
According to his case report, Blackamore had been keeping an eye on the dispute from afar, noting "heightened levels of voices." He noted that Ajani approached the group and that he seemed "upset."
"At one point I observed that he hiked his pants up in a fashion that I'm familiar with individuals who are seemingly about to become engaged in a physical altercation," he wrote of Ajani in his report.
Blackamore wrote that after he saw Ajani move toward Nitzsche in "an aggressive manner," he decided to intervene and ask what was going on.
Blackamore wrote that Dorecia responded by stating something to the effect of, “I ain’t talking to you.” After she began "yelling and screaming very loudly," Nitzsche told Dorecia that she needed to leave. Blackamore echoed that.
Blackamore is among the Madison police officers who get paid by the the mall to patrol the premises on “special duty.” Those officers do not enforce the mall’s policies. They can, however, ask for voluntary compliance if someone is asked to leave by mall security.
“We simply requested compliance with the mall security’s request that they leave,” Despain said.
The Carrs, however, said that it was Blackamore who first told them to leave, not Nitzsche, without giving them a reason.
“Security, at no point, asked us to leave the mall,” Dorecia said.
Carr said that she did not raise her voice with Blackamore, nor did she refuse to talk with him. She said that she and Ajani tried to ask why they were being asked to leave, but that Blackamore did not try to clarify. He said that it "wasn't up for debate."
Dorecia said his tone was disrespectful and that Ajani told him, “You don’t need to talk to my mama like that.” That was when Blackamore allegedly reached for his belt.
“I don’t know if it was a taser he was reaching for — gun, taser, I don’t know. It scared me,” she said.
Soon after, they were escorted out of the mall by police officers.
The family was shaken, said Dorecia — herself included. They have been posting on Facebook about the incident, and have received an outpouring of support from other business and community leaders in their circle.
She stressed that at no point did Ajani ever once act in a threatening way. That a police officer thought that is what upsets her the most.
“That’s the thing that offends us," she said. “He treated Ajani as if he was threatening. It was like, what is making you so threatened by him?”
Ajani Carr has had a growing profile in the city over the last two years, thanks to a budding TV acting career and his work helping young people of color in the city. His work was recently the focus of a Cap Times cover story.
Dorecia said that she's upset with mall security — she's called for a boycott of the mall over social media — but even more upset at the way the incident was handled by police. She has no doubt that race played a role in the way she said she was treated.
“No one is going to be able to convince me that this would happen to a white mother,” she said.
Despain said MPD officers operated in the exact way they were supposed to and that Dorecia Carr’s version of events is false. He also emphasized that no use of force was deployed, that no arrests were made and that the police officers did not themselves enforce mall policy.
The security director of West Towne Mall has not replied to a request for comment.
Dorecia said Ajani would not comment on the incident either, at least not until the family met with police to discuss the situation.
According to Madison police, video of the incident was captured by the mall. Despain and Carr confirmed that the family will be meeting with Police Chief Mike Koval to review the footage. That meeting is slated for Thursday.