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Shots fired at Ross Park Mall cause concern for shoppers months later, lead to changes for police

ROSS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Some people are still hesitant to return to a popular North Hills Mall after a fight led to reported gunshots near the food court four months ago. Some shoppers barricaded themselves in backrooms, while others flooded out of the mall, running in all directions and creating chaos on McKnight Road in Ross Township during a busy Saturday in May.

In the end, police arrested two teens, and the company that owns the mall said it would install cameras to help deter crime and improve investigations. But Channel 11 learned that hasn’t happened yet, and police are making changes to some procedures since the incident to help improve their response.

“I’ve been shopping other places,” said Julia Skyrja. “Smaller stores, but not the mall.”Skyrja says she didn’t return to mall for a while after the late May incident, saying, “we didn’t want to go for a couple months.”

>>>RELATED: Teens facing gun charges related to weekend Ross Park Mall shooting

Skyrja’s 10-year-old daughter was in the mall with a friend and the friend’s parent, when the fight and gunshots sent people scrambling and the mall went into lockdown. Her daughter called her minutes after the commotion started.

“They just got into the Bath and Body Works, and I guess everyone started panicking and the guys were shooting,” said Skyrja. “The Bath and Body Works management shut the gates, and they all went to the backroom and stayed there for an hour and a half. She was able to talk to me on the phone, you know she was scared. She said she thought she was going to die in the beginning.”

Skyrja remembers like it was yesterday, rushing to the mall only to be met with bumper-to-bumper traffic and police officers stopping her on McKnight Road.

“I was nervous, but you couldn’t get to it (the mall),” said Skyrja. “Because they blocked the road. I was on the phone with her.”

Police with guns drawn inside the mall helped lead some customers to safety. Investigators revealed that in the hours following the incident that there were no security cameras inside the halls of Ross Park Mall, only in the stores.

Simon Property Group, the owners of Ross Park Mall, stated days after the fight that they planned to add cameras to their facilities there and at South Hills Village Mall in Bethel Park. Channel 11 followed up on that this month, and reached out to the mall several times about where things stand. The mall never responded to any of our calls, emails or an in-person visit. Ross Police Detective Brian Kohlhepp tell us they continue to work with mall management.

“They’re progressing further with that,” said Detective Kohlhepp. “They have hired a consultant, that consultant has taken bids, they talked with a number of different companies to do installations, and their hope is to have it all in by the end of the year, maybe even before holiday shopping season begins.”

Kohlhepp said that Saturday in May was a very busy day with lots of customers, and while they have trained there in the past, this incident exposed issues with the evacuation plan and the emergency response.

>>>RELATED: Some employees quit after Ross Park Mall fight, shooting citing safety concerns

“So dealing with the actual traffic on McKnight (Road), and as well as dealing with a large number of shoppers were the two things that were different here, as opposed to prior training scenarios.”

Kohlhepp said part of the problem with the traffic on McKnight Road was threefold. McKnight is almost always busy; but with shoppers trying to leave the mall at the same time that first responders and parents were trying to reach the mall, it created a backlog of traffic.

“Part of that was us formulating a better plan to deal with traffic so that we can ... quickly evacuate people from the mall, as well as keep those arteries open so the responding officers can get to them,” said Kohlhepp.

Another unexpected issue was the way mall customers scattered. Skyrja waited for her daughter at a nearby post office. “I just waited, me and a family member. We got to her when they figured things out,” she said.

Ross Police realized they need a better plan to reunite people with their loved ones. It’s a lesson Kohlhepp said he’s sharing with other departments. “We can use Port Authority buses that we can people put people into, and we can have a reunification center. We can have officers direct people if they’ve been split off from someone, so that we can get them back together.”

Since this incident, Ross Police have been in contact with other police departments, as well as shopping malls in our area and even across the state to share information on how to improve safety plans in their communities.

For some shoppers like Skyrja, however, the memories of that day are still too raw, and she feels not enough action has been taken. “Definitely, cameras has to be installed. Cameras have to be installed everywhere.”

Since police charged both of the teens as juveniles, the records of the case are sealed. We do know both were charged with gun possession.