WSAZ Investigates: Keeping a Mall Alive

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Shopping malls around the country are struggling to stay open, while others are shutting down.

The Charleston Town Center is also feeling that financial squeeze. In the last year alone, more than a dozen stores have closed their doors for good.

Partner that with an uptick in crime and it is easy to see why so many questions surround the mall's future. Dozens of people have left the mall in handcuffs in 2018.

WSAZ took your concerns to city leadership.

Crime has skyrocketed at the Charleston mall, and crime issues have come into focus over the last four months.

Charleston Police do not regularly patrol the mall. As of late, officers have been in the mall nearly every day.

Back in November, Police Chief Steve Cooper launched holiday patrols, assigning officers to patrol the mall several days a week to improve safety during the busy holiday season.

When the new year kicked off, Cooper says he knew more had to be done.

"Security personnel from the Town Center approached us last year and in the fall about a large increase in the number of criminal vagrants that were coming into the mall, large increase in 911 calls for police service and a large increase in the number of hypodermic needles that are being found in Town Center," Cooper said. "As a result of that, I began using our hybrid unit to do undercover stings in the mall, and we were making sometimes 10 or 12 arrests per day."

The first police sting at the mall launched the first week of February. The stings have continued through late April. There have been seven total stings, netting a total of 41 arrests within a three-month period.

Of the 41, four people were repeat offenders. Three people were arrested twice and one person was arrested three times.

We asked Chief Cooper how important it is to him to improve safety at the mall, even though there are security officers hired by the mall.

"Well, it's very important. It's one of the main economic drivers in our economy here in Charleston," he said. "We were receiving complaints from merchants, restaurant managers, local attorneys -- dozens of complaints per week."

In the undercover stings, police tell they found criminals all over the mall, along with hundreds of syringes and illegal drugs.

As the town center's problems grow, so does the concern of city leaders.

"It's beyond worry. It's a place I'm in every single day of my life. I go there every day," Mayor Danny Jones tells WSAZ. "We have to be ready to present Charleston as a city that's ready to do whatever we can do to make it work, but so much of this is completely out of our hands. I mean used to have a lot of really sleepless nights."

Jones knows crime concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.

As of this week, at least 28 storefronts sit empty inside the mall.

WSAZ reached out the Charleston Town Center to give the mall an opportunity to respond to our investigation. A spokesperson told us she was unable to do an interview and declined to comment.

The 911 calls to the mall help tell the story. Our investigation found 911 calls have skyrocketed since April 2015. Between April 2015 and April 2016, Metro 911 reports 270 calls for service at the mall. That number nearly numbered in each of the following two years.

From April 2016 to April 2017, there were 454 calls for service.

Between April 2017 and April 2018, Metro 911 tells WSAZ there have been 461 calls with one week remaining, in comparison to the other years.

The calls range from robberies, overdoses, medical emergencies, assaults and even a shooting.

City leaders believe the increase in crime is directly related to the county's controversial needle exchange program that once operated next door to the mall. Last month the program was suspended indefinitely following a WSAZ investigation: Needles Everywhere.

The harm reduction program is designed to help prevent the spread of disease by handing out clean needles to drug users, but Mayor Jones says the program is hurting the whole city, including the mall.

"If they fire that needle exchange back up where it is, I'm not sure how prudent it was to spend one hundred million dollars on a civic center when you've got a mini mall for drugs," he says. "I'll acknowledge, and so will Cooper, that they (the mall) know things have gotten better since they shut down that mill, but they're not gonna tell you that, cause that acknowledges that there was a problem."

Chief Cooper also says police have arrested fewer people and confiscated fewer drugs and drug paraphernalia within the last month.

In a police sting that lasted several hours in mid-April, officers were unable to find anyone breaking the law or with warrants inside the mall. A sting two weeks prior netted just a couple arrests.

"We're starting to make a real dent in the problem," Cooper said. "Things are changing at the mall, and we believe that it is quickly becoming a safe place to shop."



 
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