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Fox Valley Mall. (Megann Horstead / Beacon-News)

Fox Valley Mall. (Megann Horstead / Beacon-News)

By Grace Adee

While the holiday shopping season brought an influx of Americans into shopping centers all across the nation, this year it also brought a particularly high number of teen fights, as well. As a result, suburban Chicago malls are among the places considering restrictions on teens in malls in order to prevent such confrontations from taking place. But using these restrictions to increase security in shopping malls can be a double-edged sword– especially when it comes to uneven enforcement.

In Aurora, for example, eight teens were charged with creating a “large disturbance” that resulted in the temporary closure of Fox Valley Mall last month.

Fox Valley and other shopping centers like it are now considering restrictions that require minors to be accompanied by an adult. About 105 out of the 1222 malls in the United States have teen policies like this.

Mall management is hesitant to adopt policies like this, however, in an age in which these stores have lost much of their business to online shopping. According to Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, teens represent a crucial demographic of spenders, and mall managers don’t particularly want to disperse that desirable foot traffic.

But as malls attempt to balance calls for more safety and a desire to retain teens as customers, there can be side effects to implementing these policies that mall owners need to take into account.

The Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento is among the American malls that require minors to be accompanied by a parent or guardian “during periods of high occupancy.” But, according to a report by ABC news, shoppers were starting to notice that this rule seemed to be primarily implemented for groups of black male teens, suggesting that police officers were assuming that these shoppers were more likely to be threats to safety than valued customers, as opposed to teens of other races. The mall is being accused of racial profiling as a result.

While police officers told a group of young black men that they were not allowed to be there unaccompanied, a group of white girls ages 14, 13, and 11 walked by. These young women were never told that they were not allowed to be there unaccompanied, even as they walked by officers who were clearly enforcing the policy.

A group of white 15-year-old boys had also never heard of the policy, even though several police officers were nearby them when they were interviewed by ABC news. An adult woman that was interviewed had noticed that black teenagers were being singled out, while most young people were allowed to shop.

The Sacramento Police department denied the allegations of racial profiling. But it’s clear that this is a difficult policy to enforce, and stereotypes surrounding men of color in our society may be making some officers judge some teens harmless patrons of shopping malls, and others as potential disruptions.

Chicago malls should be careful not to make the same mistakes as malls like Arden Fair. These kinds of policies, when not enforced properly, are reminiscent of Chicago’s anti-loitering laws that were enforced in the 1990s (and in various iterations throughout the 2000s) in order to prevent gang activity, making it a crime to “remain in any one place with no apparent purpose” in the presence of a suspected gang member when ordered by a police officer to keep walking.

While in theory this policy applied to everyone equally, it was specifically meant to target certain demographics, particularly young, poor, black men, in a way that could often lead to snap judgements and unfair arrests. If a young man was simply talking to an alleged gang member, it could be perceived as illicit activity and they could be told to disperse by police for no apparent reason– there was a lot of room in this law for innocent people to be considered criminals because of arbitrary circumstances surrounding them. The 1992 law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 66 defendants, many of whom were not claimed to be gang members at the time of their arrest and prosecution.

Of course, these teen mall policies are on a smaller scale than the anti-loitering laws. But they both speak to cases in which the letter of the law said one thing, but the larger policy could lead to bias as some types of people are deemed harmless while others are deemed dangerous.

While mall management teams are at liberty to enact policies banning teens without parental guidance as they will , we should encourage them not to go to these extreme measures, and instead address the issue by increasing mall security. If they do, however, enact restrictions against groups of teenagers, Chicago malls and their patrons should look out for uneven enforcement of these policies between people of different races, genders, and seeming socioeconomic levels.

If you witness racial profiling, in shopping centers or on street corners, always inform your local law enforcement agency.

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