Community

Late last year, the St. Matthews Police Department — and Louisville’s youth in general — drew widespread attention following a disturbance at Mall St. Matthews. Police described the Dec. 26 incident, in which multiple teens were reported causing problems in the mall, as the culmination of weeks of increased crime in the suburban city.

Some residents — and even St. Matthews City Council members — were skeptical of the police department’s claim. But documents provided to WFPL News through an open records request show that St. Matthews experienced an increase in crimes involving youth near and around the mall in the weeks leading up to the Dec. 26 incident.

That day, police reported “thousands” of teens causing trouble at the mall. No arrests, damages or thefts were initially reported, and mall operators shut down the facility an hour early.

St. Matthews Police described the event as a “riot,” and many local media outlets quickly followed. The police description of the event has been disputed, as have police estimates of how many people were involved.

During a media briefing on Dec. 30, St. Matthews Police Officer Tony Cobaugh said the department had seen a spike in crime since October, and those crimes served as a “buildup” to what transpired — and the police response — Dec. 26.

He said officers had seen more assaults, thefts, damages and weapons reported in and around the mall than ever before. St. Matthews Police singled out young people as the root of the crime spike.

But at the time, St. Matthews Mayor Richard Tonini said he did not believe there had been an uptick in juvenile-related crime in St. Matthews during the weeks prior to Dec. 26.

“I don’t think this is a surge in crime,” he said then.

St. Matthews Police officials initially declined to fulfill an open records request from WFPL for police reports, emails and other documents relating to Cobaugh’s claim — asserting that the officers, including the chief of police, don’t communicate via email. They claimed other documents are sealed.

But the department recently provided more than 430 pages of emails and related documents to WFPL.

The documents, including dispatch logs, police reports and emails, show a string of crimes involving juveniles dating back to October 2015, including robberies, thefts, fights, weapons and disorderly conduct.

In October, St. Matthews Police reported seven juveniles started a fire at a bus stop near the mall. Another report included an incident where “several juveniles” were reported to be on the roof of Whole Foods Market “banging on the glass sky lights.” That report included a theft that led to the recovery of a handgun from a juvenile, according to the documents.

The trend persisted into November, according to the documents.

From Nov. 2 to Nov. 28, multiple arrests were made and citations issued, the documents show. Juveniles were charged with carrying concealed deadly weapons and with allegedly committing armed robberies. Multiple vehicle damage reports were taken; one report details a group of teens who were allegedly kicking over motorcycles in a parking lot and throwing rocks at passing vehicles.

In an email, police described Nov. 28 as a “very busy night” for the officers stationed at Mall St. Matthews. The email details “non stop” nuisance calls and “general mayhem” taking place throughout the mall area, including one report of juveniles throwing debris into the middle of Shelbyville Road.

In one of the emails included among the records, Cobaugh wrote that many of the juveniles stopped by police on Nov. 28 claimed they were being profiled because of their race. Cobaugh wrote that “we stopped them because they made poor life choices and were loud and disorderly and clearly caused alarm to area shoppers.”

In a separate email, Cobaugh described Dec. 5 as “the most chaotic night of the past five weeks.”

“For over two hours there was general mayhem in and around the mall,” Cobaugh said in an email to St. Matthews Police Chief Norm Mayer.

Cobaugh also called for a meeting between police officials, the St. Matthews mayor, mall management and mall security to “discuss a better plan to deal with this serious community nuisance problem.”

It’s unclear if the meeting ever occurred. St. Matthews Mayor Richard Tonini declined to comment on the meeting and the crime issues shown in the documents provided by St. Matthews Police Department.

Cobaugh has said he’d decided to “beef up” the police department’s presence in and around the mall area in early November. That increased presence included officers from the department’s Special Response Team, which Cobaugh commands. But he said those efforts did not lead to a drop in incidents in the area.

Metro Councilman Brent Ackerson, a Democrat, represents a portion of St. Matthews, including the mall area. He said he was never made aware of crime in and around the mall prior to the Dec. 26 disturbance.

Councilman Bill Hollander, a Democrat who represents District 9, which includes a portion of St. Matthews, also said he was never alerted of spiking crime in the area.

The problems appear to have cooled in early December, the documents show. But on Dec. 26, multiple media outlets reported a “riot” and sparked a community conversation about bias, profiling and a lack of things to do for young people.

According to police documents, dozens of employees reported that they feared for their safety during the disturbance. Some said they had anxiety about returning to work, and at least one quit.

Since Dec. 26, a new mall policy has been adopted barring unsupervised teens age 17 and younger from being on mall property during weekend evening hours.

Mall management has claimed there have been no major problems at the mall since the policy was adopted, according to a January report from The Courier-Journal.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.