A report of young men fighting and carrying guns at Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian this summer sent some people scurrying for cover and many more to social media to lament crime at the mall.
“I truly do not know what has become of our town but people stating there are not gangs or gang violence lie,” Kellie Winstead Stafford wrote on Facebook about an Aug. 24 incident at the mall.
According to the post, a family member was working at the mall when a group fight broke out. According to the family member, a fight broke out among several young men, and they ran away in different directions, leaving the mall. At least one was armed with a handgun.
Among Winstead’s concerns was the lack of media coverage. Many other community members reacted on Facebook and noted their own concerns about safety at the mall.
A review by The Meridian Star of four months of Meridian police responses to mall incidents found a few serious calls, however, most of the incidents could be encountered anywhere – car burglaries, shoplifting and arguments over parking spaces.
The Aug. 24 complaint was listed on the Meridian police report as an “unfounded call,” and as a result was not reported by The Star.
Meridian Police Chief Benny Dubose said last week there were no shots fired in the mall in this particular incident.
The department and the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department both responded to the call. Two vehicles leaving the scene were stopped, one by each department. Dubose said city officers found two 9mm handguns during their stop. Both guns were cleared through NCIC, according to the police report.
This was the same day Great Southern National Bank near the mall was robbed, which was an unrelated incident.
A May 17 shooting incident at the mall involved two women, neither of whom were injured. The two women fought at the mall around 9 p.m. and one used a self-defense spray, more commonly known as Mace, on the other, according to Meridian Police Department Sgt. Dareall Thompson.
One of the women had a gun in her purse and that gun discharged, Thompson said.
“We think the gun went off in her purse because we couldn’t come up with any gun casings,” Thompson said. “The gun was never pulled out or pointed at anybody.”
The same day, a shoplifter reportedly tazed an American Eagle employee with a taser.
Some serious incidents
Police responded to roughly 60 calls at the mall from May 1 to Sept. 19. Among the more potentially serious incidents:
• On May 15, police responded to a disturbance involving a man who had been fired and struck a female and was “causing harm to others.” Security advised that he was trying to wreck his vehicle.
• On Sept. 16, police responded to a disturbance involving six females, one with a taser. The officer handled the situation on the scene.
• On Sept. 16, police responded to a disturbance involving an aggressive man who had been permanently banned from the property. The officer was able to handle the “escalating” situation.
Most other incidents included shoplifting and other types of theft.
Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie said the biggest issue he sees coming from the mall is automobile burglaries.
“Any time you have people coming to or coming from a location, usually shopping, that’s a location for people to be burglarized in their cars,” the sheriff said. “People should keep their packages locked in the trunk. They don’t care what the window costs; they are just concerned about that package.”
As for day-to-day operations, Thompson said the mall has its own private security department. The police will assist if there is a disturbance. With the department’s substation located in the mall near the cinema, there is a police presence, but the department allows security to operate independently unless police presence is needed.
Dubose said mall security is limited as to how it can resolve certain situations.
“Mall security is trying their best, but they are not getting the respect that we get,” the chief said. “These kids know these guys don’t have the arrest powers that we have.”
Bonita Lakes Mall General Manager Renee Williams said the mall’s youth escort policy has helped keep things under control. The policy requires teenagers under 18 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian 21 or older at all times on Fridays and Saturday after 6 p.m.
The policy also states that “unescorted youth shopping before 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings must leave the property by 6 p.m. or be joined by a parent or guardian.”
Anyone in violation of the policy will be asked to leave, and those who refuse may be prosecuted for trespassing.
“I think every place is going to always have an issue to some degree,” Williams said. “Since the policy has been in place, we don’t have any major issues.”
Dubose agrees, saying social media could be more to blame than actual crime.
“If you’re listening to social media, I can understand, because people believe everything they read on social media,” he said. “I really don’t see where there’s a big safety issue as far as the mall is concerned.
“It really hasn’t been that eventful since May other than that shooting. The four shoplifting and the two thefts within five months — we would have that many at Walmart in two days.”
So could social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter serve as an exaggeration tool more than an informational tool? Do Mark Twain’s words “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” truly apply when it comes to online entertainment?
“There’s a lot of interest in fake stories,” said Dr. Arthur Cosby of Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center. “It’s the same way rumors spread, except it does it quickly and with more people piling on if they tend to believe it.”
When dealing with issues close to home, a seemingly innocuous social media post has the potential to do irreparable damage.
“There a potential for anything. Everybody is their own reporter when you have Twitter or Facebook. You can post almost anything as long as you don’t get into a few areas that you’re going to be monitored or shut down.”