In continuing fallout from the controversial arrest of a young black woman Tuesday outside East Towne Mall, the Tennessee company that owns East and West Towne malls refused to explain Thursday why it won’t put surveillance cameras in common areas of the two shopping centers, including entrances and exits and the food courts.
Sean Phillips, regional marketing director for Nashville, Tennessee-based CBL & Associates, also wouldn’t address criticism leveled at the company by Madison officials over the lack of cameras. He provided only an emailed, general response to specific questions from the State Journal:
“The safety and comfort of our shoppers, employees and tenants is our top priority,” Phillips said in the corporate email. “Mall security is a 24/7 365-day program inside and outside the property, some measures are visible and some are not. We do not release details on our program and protocols for obvious reasons.”
Local officials, including Mayor Paul Soglin and Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, this week said the addition of security cameras to common areas would enhance public safety at the malls, which have increasingly become magnets for gun violence, other crimes and public disturbances — including Tuesday’s forceful arrest of 18-year-old Genele Laird outside East Towne by Madison police.
Koval at a news conference Wednesday said CBL was “fairly derelict” for not installing cameras, while Soglin on Thursday said repeated pleas for mall cameras by him and Koval have been ignored.
“The chief and I have extensively discussed having the shopping centers put in security cameras,” Soglin said. “We have repeatedly made that request. (But) we have no control over a private mall. That’s the problem.”
It’s not a new issue. But recent events including Laird’s arrest this week and several incidents of shots fired outside both malls over the past year — plus one instance of someone shot and injured inside East Towne in late December — put the continuing need for security cameras in high relief now, officials said.
“Cameras would have been hugely beneficial to us (in the December shooting), because we had real problems getting witnesses to come forward or even (getting) our victim to cooperate,” Koval said. “The cameras would have been an excellent visual enhancer in terms of prosecuting someone.”
“We are hoping that this (latest incident) will create yet another catalyst,” toward persuading CBL to install security cameras, added Koval, who also cited “obviously all the active shootings that we’ve seen taking place (in public settings) throughout our country” as an additional reason to install them.
In Laird’s arrest, security cameras might have provided an additional objective record of events at two key intervals in the incident. Inside the mall, there could be a recording of Laird’s reported interactions with employees of a Taco Bell in the mall’s food court, where police allege she pulled out a knife and threatened to kill security staff after stating someone at the Taco Bell stole her cellphone.
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A Taco Bell spokeswoman Thursday declined to discuss what happened. “We have to defer to police on this investigation,” said Laura Nedbal, the Dallas-based associate manager for public relations.
Security cameras also could have captured Laird’s subsequent arrest on the sidewalk, beyond what’s available from the viral cellphone video taken by another person outside the mall.
The video has been divisive, as some see police brutality in the aggressive takedown of a struggling Laird by two male officers — including knee strikes, a closed-fist punch to the abdomen and use of a Taser — while others fault Laird for not following commands and for kicking and spitting at the officers.
“If someone is animated and is still overtly threatening others, we have an obligation to restore order,” Koval said Wednesday in answer to a news conference question about whether the officers should have tried to de-escalate the situation. “We can’t just in that case retreat and buy time or create distance. We have to go hands-on in order to bring someone like that back into control.”
Laird was released from the Dane County Jail on Thursday evening on the order of Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, the Sheriff’s Office said. It was not clear if any charges would be filed against her.
Ald. Paul Skidmore, who represents areas including West Towne Mall, said CBL has rejected installing security cameras in its malls “as a policy,” out of concern that the presence of cameras will cause the properties to be seen as unsafe.
“It’s really a deterrent,” Skidmore said. “If somebody comes in and they know there are cameras everywhere, it’s a pretty powerful deterrent (on bad behavior).”
Skidmore also cited improved safety accomplished by the extensive use of security cameras Downtown and at the Ho-Chunk casino in southeast Madison.
“I think that visibility leads to accountability and that if you’ve got cameras you’ve got an irrevocable record, if it’s done properly, of who’s been there and what they’re doing,” he said. “Mall cameras at entrances, exits and food courts — just places where people congregate. It is common sense.”