By Bob Uphues
When shoppers arrived at North Riverside Park Mall on the evening of Friday, June 26, they were greeted by a very visible police presence that included North Riverside Police vehicles outside each entrance on the east side of the shopping center and a patrol vehicle, with its lights flashing, at the 25th Street entrance.
Inside the shopping center, mall security and armed off-duty police officers working for a third-party security firm, made themselves visible at entry doors, the food court and the central court of the mall's common area.
The police presence was in direct response to violence at the shopping center the week prior, which included three fights during the week and a shooting on June 21 that left one man wounded.
"We've got a cooperative plan in place for keeping the property safe," said the mall's general manager, Harvey Ahitow, in a phone interview Friday. "Hopefully it's more successful."
Mall and village officials, including police leaders, met last Thursday to discuss those security plans. Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said he also wanted to emphasize the village's concerns.
"It was a very frank meeting," Hermanek said. "I told [Ahitow] about the concerns of the residents and the village."
The short-term solution was beefing up security and police presence inside and outside the mall. At least three North Riverside patrol vehicles could be seen driving slowly around the mall's parking lots all weekend, with unoccupied police squad cars parked outside entrances on the east side.
""We're working on a plan with the North Riverside Police Department of them giving us more coverage than they normally do," Ahitow said. "They will absolutely be more present on the property."
According to North Riverside Police Chief Carlos Garcia, aside from a couple of incidents, it was a quiet week at the mall even though the shopping center was quite busy and filled with shoppers.
"I think with all of the security that was there, it made people feel more at ease," Garcia said. "We just want to make it a safe environment there."
North Riverside police responded to one fight inside the mall on June 27 at about 4:15 p.m., where four teens said they were targeted by another group who started the fight. No one was hurt or arrested.
Hermanek indicated that village and mall officials discussed using metal detectors, but that it was rejected as not feasible. Hermanek also suggested limiting points of entry, and that appears to have been taken to heart at least partially.
For example, signs on the doors to the upper-level entrance of J.C. Penney directed shoppers to the common mall entry doors north of the store, near where a North Riverside police vehicle was parked.
"It may deter these kids from coming in and may deter them from doing anything," Hermanek said of the police presence, adding that the village also requested the mall begin enforcing its youth escort policy earlier in the day on weekends.
Garcia said police are still investigating the June 21 shooting, which happened in the common rear area of the mall on the lower level near J.C. Penney. The victim, who survived, and two witnesses, however, were uncooperative when police tried to interview them.
"We're still reviewing video," Garcia said. "It's a work in progress."
Also still under investigation is the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old man outside Olive Garden on the mall property on May 31 while the then-closed shopping center was being cleared of looters.
Police believe that in both shootings the victims were targeted and that they were gang-related. It's unclear whether the two shootings are connected.