St. Matthews officials address the Dec. 26 incident at their mall

St. Matthews officials address the Dec. 26 incident at the mall. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Officers Dennis McDonald and Tony Cobaugh of the St. Matthews Police Department held a lengthy press conference on Wednesday to give more details on the Dec. 26 disturbance involving numerous juveniles that shut down the Mall St. Matthews, which quickly escalated into a national story.

Though initial media reports indicated the St. Matthews Police Department had estimated up to 2,000 juveniles were involved, McDonald has since walked back that figure as an estimate of how many teens were present, and he said Wednesday that the number of those present who actually engaged in behavior ranging from “childish to criminal” was much lower.

“Not all of those kids were involved in criminal activity,” said McDonald. “In fact, a large number of them — probably the majority of them, many — were there for legitimate purposes… There was a sizable number of those juveniles who were there for no other reason but to cause trouble. You had those in middle who were caught up in what was going on. They were being entertained, and some of them joined in.”

Officer Cobaugh re-emphasized that point, adding, “While the crowd estimate was what it was, not every one of those youths were involved in the disruptive, disorderly behavior. And to paint a broad brush that all juveniles who come to the mall are bad kids would be a ridiculous comment to make. It’s not. It’s the usual situation of a handful. This time it was a larger handful, but it certainly wasn’t the entire group of youth who were out there.”

The estimate of how many juveniles were present came from mall management and officers on the scene, said McDonald, adding, “I don’t think any of them had an abacus. I don’t think they were standing there with a clicker counting how many people were there. And we believe that those numbers were accurate.”

McDonald said the juveniles acting out that night were not the only ones at fault, laying some of the blame on absentee parents who use the mall as a babysitter, and adults who have not provided alternative venues for kids to spend their free time. On that latter point, McDonald referred to idle time as “being the playground for the devil,” with Cobaugh adding that “the devil does potentially take your heart and soul and get you involved in doing things you shouldn’t be doing.”

Despite saying there was plenty of criminal activity at the mall that night, McDonald defended the fact that police called in to help made no arrests once the 40 to 50 officers showed up at the chaotic scene.

“If those police officers had witnessed assaultive behavior, someone brandishing a weapon, someone committing arson, arrests certainly would have been made,” said McDonald. “Our police officers and the officers who assisted us did an excellent job. They showed great restraint. There were no serious injuries reported to us, and as of now the property damage that we’re aware of has been minimal.”

Cobaugh — the commanding officer on the scene that night — said he did not order officers to not arrest anyone, explaining that officers have “discretionary power” on whether to arrest an individual.

“If major crimes were occurring in any officer’s presence from any agency that was there that night, I have no doubt that action would have been taken,” said Cobaugh. “We should compliment the officers for the way they handled this situation.”

Cobaugh emphasized that this incident did not come out of the blue, detailing for nearly 45 minutes all of the disruptive or criminal activity that officers have observed in and around the Mall St. Matthews since October.

“Dec. 26 was not just a one-time event,” said Cobaugh. “It was probably a powder kegging, or a stacking, if you will, of several months of activity going on in that particular area of our city.”

Cobaugh said a long list of incidents have occurred over that time involving groups of juveniles, usually happening on a Saturday night and spilling out to local businesses surrounding the mall, such as Whole Foods, Taco Bell and Outback Steakhouse. He said such incidents included loitering and turning over display tables, throwing rocks at cars, and robberies involving guns — noting three incidents in which a gun was found on a teenager. Cobaugh also detailed a brawl in the center of the mall on Dec. 5 — which occurred near the Santa Claus area — and said LMPD officers informed him that gang signs and attire are present at the mall.

Cobaugh did not release a copy of these incident reports to the media, saying they involve juveniles and would have to be heavily redacted. Asked by Insider Louisville how large these groups of juveniles were in the previous incidents, he said they included roughly one-tenth of the total of juveniles present at the time, which he estimated at roughly 300 to 500.

“There may be seven kids in one group, and there’s three of those seven who are actually causing problems, not all seven of them,” said Cobaugh. “You’re not seeing everyone being disruptive or disorderly, but half of their group or a segment of their group… some are just standing there watching their friends be foolish.”

The St. Matthews force beefed up personnel at the mall in November — and saw a decrease in mischievous activity on the weekends of Dec. 12 and 19 — but they were caught off guard on Dec. 26 when they had fewer officers present. Cobaugh said their detectives are following up their investigation of the incidents by interviewing every store in the mall, and though the mall itself has no surveillance camera, they are in the process of trying to obtain the footage from 12 to 15 cameras in individual stores. Officers have not encountered anyone seriously injured during the Dec. 26 chaos, but Cobaugh estimated that two to three had a minor injury.

While McDonald said there was property damage at the mall that night, David Jacoby — the general manager of Mall St. Matthews — told IL he is not aware of any such damage.

“I do not know of any damage,” said Jacoby. “It wasn’t anything that they could not just pick up and put back.”

Jacoby spoke with each mall tenant the day after the incident to debrief on what occurred but declined to tell IL what was said in those meetings. Though the officers on Wednesday listed many criminal incidents that have occurred near the mall since October, Jacoby said he is not aware of any incidences or crimes committed beyond what normally takes place at the mall.

“I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary,” Jacoby said. “I don’t think it is above normal, from what they are telling me, compared to cities our size.” He added that police calls he was aware of during the holiday season seemed “routine.”

St. Matthews Mayor Richard Tonini stated after the Dec. 26 disturbance that social media likely played a role in organizing the chaos among teens, and Officer McDonald appeared to agree.

“When I was a kid, if I wanted to get together with a bunch of kids I’d get on the phone – a rotary phone – and I’d dial them up and it would take quite a bit of time for me to get in touch with those folks,” said McDonald. “Today, a kid can get on social media and make a post, and that post reaches hundreds if not thousands of people. Times are different. The social media element of this is certainly something that we’re still investigating… There were elements of this that may be involved with social media. So to that end, Mayor (Richard) Tonini’s comments earlier this week certainly have merit.”

However, Cobaugh said Louisville’s Real Time Crime Unit — which monitors social media — saw no such organizing around the disturbance before the event or afterward, saying it was unplanned.

“I do not in any way, shape or form believe it was organized individuals,” said Cobaugh. “That’s our belief because there’s no proof of that, and we’re only going to speak with the facts and the proof.”

While many online commenters have attempted to say the mall disturbance was caused by black teens coming from outside of the St. Matthews area, McDonald disputed that characterization.

“This effort to paint this as some kind of issue involving a racial component or something like that… it’s not,” said McDonald. “This is a community. This is metropolitan Louisville issue, not the kind of issue that other folks might want to paint it as. These are our kids, whether they’re white, whether they’re black, or a mix of those both.”

Asked if he stood by his original characterization of the disturbance as a “riot,” he said he would now leave that characterization to the media. However, he did imply that this was an accurate term, handing out a Kentucky statute that defined a riot as “a public disturbance involving an assemblage of five or more persons which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or other government function.”

Shortly after the press conference, Chicago-based General Growth Properties — which owns and operates both the Mall St. Matthews and the adjacent Oxmoor Center mall — announced a new policy in which children under the age of 18 will no longer be allowed to visit either mall on Friday and Saturday evenings without adult supervision.

“All are welcome at Mall St. Matthews and Oxmoor Center at any time – we simply require that during certain hours, families spend their shopping time together,” said Jacoby in the press release. “Providing a pleasant and comfortable experience for our guests is our top priority.”

Jacoby told IL that guards will use their “common sense” when deciding whether to card individuals.

Asked if the mall was safe today, Officer McDonald said everyone should keep on shopping there as usual.

“I would encourage people to continue to shop, continue to conduct themselves as they normally would,” said McDonald. “And rest assured that we’re going to have a police presence at the mall. We’re going to continue to do everything we can to prevent it.”

IL reporter Caitlin Bowling contributed to this report.