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St. Matthews Council Doesn't Back Up Police Claim Of Crime Wave

St. Matthews City Council members are distancing themselves from that city's police department claim that juvenile crime is spiking in the Louisville suburb.

Soon after a widely publicized disturbance on Dec. 26 at Mall St. Matthews, St. Matthews Police asserted that crime by juveniles had been increasing. The day after Christmas, police reported "thousands" of teens at the mall causing disturbances.

Although no arrests, damages or thefts were initially reported, St. Matthews Police called the event a "riot" and mall operators shut down the facility an hour early. The police description of the event has been disputed, and police significantly lowered their estimates of how many people were involved.

Last month, St. Matthews Police officer Tony Cobaugh said the department had been dealing with a spike in crime since October, and those crimes have served as a “buildup” to what transpired Dec. 26. He said officers in recent months have 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.

On Tuesday — during the first St. Matthews City Council meeting since the Dec. 26 incident — city leaders were skeptical about the police claims.

Councilman Patrick Wissig, a lifelong St. Matthews resident, said he has no concerns about an increase in juvenile-related crime.

"Or anything else," he said.

Councilman Frank Flynn said he had not heard of any surge in crime in or around the Mall St. Matthews area in the months or weeks leading up to Dec. 26, despite the claim from police.

"I had heard of a surge in the juveniles being present at the mall," he said. "But I never heard a word of crime."

Councilman Tim Holland said an increase in activity around the mall during the holiday season isn't surprising. Still, he said he was not informed of a spike in criminal activity in the St. Matthews area until the Dec. 30 press conference with city police.

"It is concerning," he said. "We're kind of relying on police to protect us and keep us informed of that kind of information."

Councilwoman Mary Jo Nay said the level of crime in St. Matthews is consistent with other areas of Louisville.

"I don't think there's any more happening in St. Matthews than there is anyplace else," she said.

Nay, who attended the Dec. 30 press event, said police were attempting to show the public that there was a "pattern" of criminal activity they were aware of and trying to address.

"I wouldn't call it a surge, but I would call it a pattern," she said.

Nay said the effort from police to detail the criminal activity from October to mid-December was an effort to show the public that their response to the Dec. 26 disturbance at the mall was not an overreaction.

"They were showing the urgency of what they needed to do," she said, adding that St. Matthews is "very safe."

Nay said she shops at Mall St. Matthews without hesitation. As the Dec. 26 situation was unfolding, helicopters hovered above her own home just blocks from the mall, she said.

"And I was not locking my doors and pulling my shades because I thought the world was coming to an end," she said.

Nay said in the weeks following the event, constituents have not expressed concern to her about an uptick of crime in the area.

St. Matthews Mayor Richard Tonini, when asked if he believes there is an uptick of juvenile-related crime in St. Matthews, said flatly, "No."

"I don't think this is a surge in crime," he said.

St. Matthews Police have yet to provide WFPL with requested documentation verifying an alleged crime wave, or a comparative analysis of crimes reported during the same time in previous years. The department has cited privacy concerns for juvenile defendants and the complexity of compiling the documents as causing the delay.

During a Dec. 30 news conference, St. Matthews Police officers suggested that criminal activity fueled by juveniles was surging, specifically in areas near Mall St. Matthews. Officer Tony Cobaugh spent nearly an hour walking reporters through incidents he said have taken place in recent months involving juveniles on or near Mall St. Matthews property.

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

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.