Business & Real Estate

Arden Fair mall owner stands by holiday teen ban despite controversy

Arden Fair mall owner Mark Friedman doesn’t mind teenagers. But he could do without the ones that come to his mall to fight and steal.

So his management team came up with a solution: Ban unaccompanied minors during peak times when they cause the most trouble.

On Dec. 26, 50 Sacramento police officers and more than 30 security guards implemented that new policy for the first time. Stationed at Arden Fair doors and inside its newly refurbished public spaces, they checked to see that kids were with an adult before they entered, and tracked down the ones who managed to sneak through.

It is the mall’s busiest day of the year, when crowds surge to more than 60,000 people, 10 times normal traffic. The prohibition prevented the problems Friedman wanted to avoid. There were none of the headline-grabbing incidents of previous years, though police spokesman Bryce Heinlein said there were two fights involving adults.

But the ban has given the mall a public-relations black eye to start the new year, with critics calling it illegal and discriminatory and questioning whether Arden Fair acted fairly.

Friedman isn’t backing down.

“I think we acted 100 percent appropriately. We did the right thing,” he said. “The goal was to protect our customers and our merchants because we didn’t want to see things get out of hand as we have in other parts of the country … I was concerned with the reality of the threat and if my choice is to balance optics vs. safety, I am going to opt for the safety of my customers and merchants every time.”

Friedman said the decision to put the controversial ban in place was made in response to “a gradual perceived escalation over the last three years,” of increasing problems with teens inside the facility on that day.

“It’s become sort of a perverse tradition,” Friedman said. “The day after Christmas has become a day nationally for people to engage in mischief.”

The most serious of those incidents took place four years ago, when the mall was evacuated the day after Christmas because a group of teenagers knocked down a store sign during a fight, causing a loud noise that some patrons erroneously took as gunfire. The mall was also forced to close early in 2014, when a series of brawls broke out.

Friedman said the mall was also concerned by posts on social media that suggested kids were planning on targeting its stores for shoplifting. Friedman said security informally monitors mentions of the center on social media, and that a retail intelligence service also cautioned that teen incidents across the country could be tied to the hashtag #boxingday, a United Kingdom holiday celebrated the day after Christmas, but which has “developed a double meaning.”

Arden Fair is not alone in its struggles with teens. This year, about a dozen teen-instigated fights broke out inside shopping malls on Dec. 26, said Stephanie Cegielski of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New-York based trade organization.

Cegielski said 104 of the 1,222 shopping malls in the United States have some kind of curfew or accompaniment rule, though most are year-round and not specific to the holidays. There are only two other malls her organization knows of in California that have accompaniment restrictions, in Fresno and San Leandro.

The ACLU, the NAACP and community members have voiced disapproval of Arden Fair’s action. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg weighed in on Thursday, asking the city attorney to evaluate the constitutionality of the prohibition, despite Friedman being a strong supporter of Steinberg’s.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is unequivocal in its position that the restriction is illegal.

Michael Risher, a senior staff attorney in the Northern California office, said the policy violates California law because it imposes a ban on an entire class of people, in this case teenagers. On Friday, he sent a letter to Arden Fair and Sacramento city attorney James Sanchez asking the mall “not to take any further action” to discriminate against unaccompanied minors.

“California is very clear on this topic regardless of what other malls in other states are doing,” said Riser. “You cannot discriminate against a large, identifiable group of people, whether it is because they are children, they’re a specific sex or even race. You need to treat Californians as individuals.”

Friedman disputes that the mall’s actions violate California codes.

“They are entitled to their opinion. Our lawyers have a different opinion,” he said. “Teenagers are not a protected class of people. There are many instances where we have different rules for teenagers that are different from older people. There are all sorts of valid restrictions that people impose based on someone’s age and maturity.”

Friedman isn’t alone in his assessment. Retail security consultant Mike Rozin called Arden Fair’s actions “good policy.” He is the former security manager for the Mall of America in Minnesota, which every Friday and Saturday requires minors to have adult accompaniment after a certain time, he said.

“This is not a discriminatory policy,” said Rozin. “This is a chaperone policy.”

But Rozin added that rules alone aren’t enough to prevent bad behavior. He thinks malls need to take proactive action.

At the Mall of America, the facility employs “mighty moms and dedicated dads,” he said.

“They are adults who are social workers and experienced to deal with the teen population, and experienced with the moments we suspect that regardless of a chaperone there might still be a problem,” he said.

The counselors wander in the facility and intervene when they see a potential problem with a young patron, Rozin said.

Some patrons at Arden Fair on Dec. 26 say they felt minorities – in particular – were being targeted.

Speaking during public comments at the end of a recent City Council meeting, city resident Pearlie Barton said she didn’t want her grandchildren “to go to the mall and feel that they are going to be racially profiled … Why do they need parental guidance if they are not acting out?”

Barton was accompanied by her granddaughter Mariah Thompson, 18, a freshman at UC Berkeley and a former Sacramento City Hall intern. Thompson said later that she came to the meeting because, “We just feel like it was wrong to profile youth for what they might do.”

Their questions prompted Steinberg to ask the city attorney to review the Arden Fair policy and report back to the City Council on its constitutionality and any role the city might have in the issue.

“We’ll address it,” said Steinberg at the council meeting. “We ought to at least have a discussion, some sort of report back since we are talking about our city kids, about that decision and its constitutionality and whether the city has any role in discussing that.”

The NAACP also criticized the policy for being unfairly implemented.

“I feel that … a certain group was targeted and it was predominately African American,” said Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento NAACP.

Williams said that she sat down with mall management when the ban was being crafted and “we weren’t supportive.” She was troubled that the policy was implemented without enough notice and “there was no outreach to the community at all.”

She said her organization also questioned whether management had attempted other resolutions, including reaching out to ethnic media, and questioned if security personnel reflected the diversity of patrons and had training in cultural diversity.

Williams said that since Dec. 26., her office has received enough complaints of racial profiling that she has requested a follow-up meeting with mall management.

Friedman said he thought the NAACP was “comfortable” with the ban and he was unaware of Williams’ opposition. He said, “We were scrupulous in making sure the law was equally enforced on all teenagers.”

Heinlein also said charges of racial profiling were unfounded and may have reflected people’s perceptions rather than reality. “In general, when you have an officer or two contacting three to five individuals, and you have a constant stream (of people) going by,” it may seem as if the officers are ignoring those who weren’t stopped, he said.

Barton said she remains unconvinced race didn’t play into enforcement.

“I don’t like it and I think it is racially profiling,” she said. “I am 65 and I’ve seen some things in my lifetime, and it seems like it has come back full circle. It makes me feel horrible.”

Friedman said that if the mall did not take measures to prevent teenager trouble, it would be criticized for ignoring the issue.

“Imagine a circumstance … where I had knowledge of a potential gathering of people and I didn’t do anything about it,” he said.

And while he would rather the controversy go the way of the holidays, he said the policy remains on the books and he would use again under similar circumstances.

“Next Christmas we will probably do exactly the same thing,” he said.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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