Columbus malls are increasingly becoming targets for trouble, as 6 On Your Side uncovered thousands of emergency calls to the city's two biggest shopping spots.
Just weeks before Christmas, punches were getting thrown at the Easton Town Center Mall food court. Onlookers took to their cell phones and security was not seen for several minutes. It was one of more than 100 fights reported to Columbus Police since 2014.
The day after Christmas, a brawl broke out at a shoe store that ended with destroyed property. There have been other cases of searches for groups or gangs, responsible for using the public malls as the stage for turf wars and disputes.
The emergency call numbers show violence at Easton Town Center has increased.
Many shoppers don't want Easton to become the next City Center Mall. City Center was once a hustling and bustling place until tragedy struck in 1994. A teenager was killed in a gang-related shooting in the mall. A few years later, big stores pulled out and the mall failed.
Right now, Easton is adding more special duty police officers. Several dozen are hired every year. Sources tell 6 On Your Side a special Columbus cruiser was bought by Easton for the officers.
Records show one of the most common calls is shoplifting. Police sources say it can tie up an officer for an hour and a half or more per call. The mall also has its own private security to tackle any other trouble.
Shopper Luke Katterhenrich captured a fight this February on his cell phone. This time, in this fight, it's easy to see officers and guards moved in within seconds of the first punch.
"I was videoing, but I was also trying to keep an eye out for myself because I knew I could have got hit," Katterhenrich said. "Do I feel safe going there? Yes, I do. Will I go back? Yes, I will. But stuff's going to happen."
Easton refused 6 On Your Side's request for an interview but did tout its security changes in a statement. The full statement follows this story. The mall explained it's beefing up security with more cameras, more foot and bike patrol and more undercover officers.
"Given the times in which we live, this is not only prudent, it is required," Easton CEO Jennifer Peterson said.
There are 175 Call for Assistance stations if you need help and Easton even modified its curfew policy requiring anyone under age 15 be with a parent at the mall after 6 p.m.
Easton isn't alone. Polaris Fashion Place is seeing more violent crime. Records show fights, disturbances and weapons calls topping 400 last year. While shoplifting and burglary went down, reports of suspicious people, prowlers or felons went up.
Brian Shearin has decades of experience in law enforcement, the military and security. He teaches self-defense classes at his business, Imperative Defense.
Shearin explained ways to prepare to keep yourself safe.
"If you see something, say something. Call them up and let them know," Shearin said. "Leave the area. Don't be part of the problem, be part of the solution and the solution is keeping yourself safe."
6 On Your Side showed Shearin one of the recent mall fights caught on camera. While it's difficult to see who's at fault, he said officers did a good job, however, he points out problems with some shoppers who walked right into the danger zone.
"People came out of the store looking to see what was going on and they should have stayed inside the store," he said. "This is a dangerous situation for law enforcement because they're spread out, it's over a large area and a large group."
Over two years, police got roughly 6,000 calls to each of the two big malls.
"The safety is our top priority," Polaris General Manager Bruce Goldsberry said. "We have a comprehensive security program combined with a zero tolerance policy for any inappropriate behavior to provide the best possible shopping experience for all visitors."
To contact Polaris Fashion Place security call: 614-840-9725 or visit polarisfashionplace.com/contact-us
Columbus Police would not comment on mall violence of the thousands of 911 calls. If you see something that doesn't seem right, report it right away.
Jennifer Peterson, Chief Executive of Easton Town Center, released the following statement about safety procedures at Easton Town Center:
At the beginning of this year we modified our parental escort policy. The policy, requiring any youth age 15 and under to be accompanied and supervised by a parent or legal guardian over the age of 21, was moved up to 6pm from 8pm. Those not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian after 6pm are asked to leave the center or go to the Easton Community Room to await a ride.
More information about our Code of Conduct at Easton Town Center can be found here.
In addition to changing our parental escort policy we've increased security personnel, both uniformed and plain clothes officers, and adjusted the way we deploy our teams throughout the property.
If a customer ever requires assistance at Easton Town Center, even for something as simple as locating a lost car, there are 175 "Call for Assistance" stations throughout the property, both in the garages and surface lots.
Significant resources are devoted to keeping the 24+ million people who visit Easton annually safe, including extensive video surveillance, special duty Columbus Police officers, our own security personnel, plain clothes officers and members of our Ambassador team. Our security procedures are constantly reviewed and adjusted based on feedback from local, state and federal authorities as well as national security experts contracted by Easton Town Center. Given the times in which we live, this is not only prudent, it is required.