By Bob Uphues
North Riverside police and officials at North Riverside Park Mall braced themselves for the arrival of hundreds of unsupervised teenagers on the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 2.
The mall put its youth escort policy, which prohibits those 17 and under from entering the mall without adult accompaniment and is usually in force on Friday and Saturday evenings, into effect for the entire day.
Meanwhile, police had called on the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System to send its mobile field force – a unit of up to 80 police officers drawn from departments across northeast Illinois.
In addition to placing a half dozen uniformed officers at entrance doors on the east side of the mall, near Sears and the food court, mall security restricted entry at those locations through one door. Mall security guards manned other entry points to the mall, and security stood sentinel outside the mall entrance to Round One and a lone guard stood at the upper level entry to J.C. Penney on the mall's east side.
Police used a vacant retail space that most recently housed Fallas, on the lower level of the mall, as an onsite staging area for police officers. And beginning around noon, a half mile away, dozens of police vehicles, including a Cook County Department of Homeland Security command vehicle took up places in the parking lot of Woodlawn Funeral Home.
If the situation called for it, scores of police officers could be at the mall within seconds.
Officials had cause for alarm. On Saturday, Dec. 29 mall management closed the shopping center early after hundreds of teenagers – mall general manager Harvey Ahitow put the number at 500 – began causing disturbances in the mall's common areas – running, shouting, knocking over trash cans and generally causing a ruckus.
Mall stores began to close their gates and security guards and police on the scene, amounting to a couple dozen, found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of young people who had arrived all around the same time on buses and in ride shares.
"They were just creating a scene," said Ahitow. "It was a flash mob. I'm not aware of any property damage, which is amazing."
Two juveniles were charged with disorderly conduct as a result of the Dec. 29 incident.
Messages passed along on social media fueled the flash mob, say police, as they have in the past at other shopping centers. In 2013, Ford City Mall shut down over a similar flash mob, for example.
North Riverside Park Mall officials had been bracing for an incident, since when the shopping center has had trouble in the past, it's often come in the days right after Christmas.
Officials increased security measures on Dec. 26, but apart from a "couple of issues" that turned out to be a fairly routine day, Ahitow said.
"We thought we'd gotten the worst of it," he said.
Mall officials also caught wind of a possible flash mob for Dec. 29 when they were alerted to a message being passed around on Facebook stating, "Trend! Trend! Trend! Where: North Riverside Park Mall. When: Dec 29th. Time: 5:00 until you get kicked out. Bring yo gang out. Get here or hear bout it."
In retrospect, Ahitow said, the mall should have stationed security at the mall's bus stop to intercept those coming via the CTA and Pace buses on Cermak Road.
"We should have had presence at the bus stop and did not," Ahitow said. "We had that presence [Jan. 2]."
Security and police ended up clearing the mall, which shut down for the night at about 6 p.m. on Dec. 29. As teens found their way back to bus stops or to wait for ride shares, they ended up causing disturbances at shopping centers east of the mall in North Riverside and Berwyn.
Some of those businesses closed for the night early as well while others placed security at their doors to restrict entry. Dozens of police were in the vicinity of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road for more than two hours after the mall closed.
Just hours after the Dec. 29 incident, police and mall officials learned of a new Facebook post calling for another flash mob on Jan. 2.
"Who wanna go again?" the post read. "When: Jan. 2. Where: NRS Mall: Time: 1:30-until. Bring yo gang."
Mall security regularly track social media, said Ahitow, and police receive tips about potential incidents. The trick is sorting out which are potential threats and which are not.
Sometimes police can convince Facebook to take down posts. At other times, officials see how popular posts are to gauge their level of severity.
"We monitor them to get a sense," Ahitow said. "If there's only a couple of likes we don't take it as seriously as when it gets hundreds of likes."
Shortly after police began deploying at the mall on Jan. 2, at about 12:30 p.m., police made two arrests, charging a pair of 16 year-old-boys, one from Berwyn and one from Chicago, with criminal trespassing after they tried repeatedly to enter the mall after being turned away by enforcement of the youth escort policy.
That was the end of the trouble. No packed buses arrived, no teens running wild inside the mall.
Did word get out on social media that security was tight at North Riverside Park Mall on Jan. 2, essentially canceling the flash mob?
It's hard to prove, but North Riverside Police Chief Deborah Garcia believes it's likely.
"Social media plays a huge role," Garcia said. "Right when we started [to beef up police presence around noon on Jan. 2] we arrested two juveniles for criminal trespass. We got intel saying, 'Don't come to the mall, because you won't get in.'"
While the large police presence perhaps foiled a flash mob on Jan. 2, such an operation can't be the response to every social media post. Knowing how much security to bring to bear versus alarming customers is a balancing act.
"Ultimately what we want is a peaceful environment," said Ahitow. "When we instituted the youth escort policy, the overall intent was to keep the environment safe and pleasurable for everyone.
"It's a balancing act and we don't have the total answer to it."
That youth escort policy, said Garcia, is the most important tool for preventing incidents.
"We believe the key is the youth escort policy," Garcia said. "It needs to be implemented early, before the numbers become unmanageable."
As for the cost of such a large police response, both on Dec. 29 and on Jan. 2, those are the benefits of belonging to the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System and the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, both of which count North Riverside as a member.
The department pays less than $10,000 per year to belong to both NIPAS and ILEAS, and the department also designates an officer to serve on each task force and respond when member agencies put out a call.
"That's why these are so important," said Garcia. "When you utilize them once, it pays for itself."