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Suspended security chief says Santa Rosa mall made guards 'scapegoats' in Lopez dispute


The head of security at Santa Rosa Plaza is publicly denouncing his employers for suspending him after a controversial encounter between mall guards and a group of activists who were eating in the food court following a downtown protest on Presidents Day.

Acting on the mall's policy of not allowing signs, banners or T-shirts on the day of a protest, the security guards ordered activists protesting the October shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez to either remove their "RIP Andy" shirts, turn them inside-out or leave the mall. Among the activists were the parents of Andy, who was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who said he mistook the boy's airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle.

The food court incident has turned into a free-speech issue that has mall owner Simon Property Group revisiting its security policies. It also has drawn the downtown shopping center into a political minefield that has gripped the city and Sonoma County for months.

But Russell Aharonian, who has been director of security at both the downtown mall and Coddingtown Mall for more than three years, said he and mall security guards are being made "scapegoats" by Simon in its efforts to diffuse the controversy.

"Why are you throwing me and my crew under the bus?" Aharonian said, adding that guards were only following mall "code of conduct" policies and rules that were set up for dealing with protests and demonstrations.

"If we made a mistake, it's a corporate mistake — me, Simon and everybody else," Aharonian said.

A week after the free-speech furor, Simon took action.

Aharonian said he had just arrived at work the morning of Feb. 25, eight days after the food court incident, when his new regional manager came up to him and exchanged pleasantries before politely telling him to clear out his desk, pack his things and turn in his keys.

Aharonian, a retired Mono County sheriff's sergeant, said he was told he was being suspended without pay "pending corporate review." That was more than a week ago, and he's heard nothing since from Simon or his direct employer, U.S. Security.

"They immediately took me off payroll, and closed out my email accounts," he said. "They've already posted the position. How obvious do you have to get?"

Simon Property Group, which has apologized to the protesters involved in the incident, declined to comment for this article.

"We are unable to provide a comment for you at this time," said Jennifer Carroll, a spokeswoman for Simon.

U.S. Security did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Aharonian, who moved to Sonoma County 3 1/2 years ago after he retired, said that Simon could have revised its policies regarding protests without heads rolling.

The retired sheriff's sergeant said he and his security guards were following their interpretation of the mall's "code of conduct" rules, as well as previously enforced prohibitions against demonstration-related signs, banners or T-shirts on the day of a protest.

Those rules, in place since the Occupy Santa Rosa protests in late 2011, now have been called into question, and the mall since has removed all signs and fliers related to its code of conduct.

The Presidents Day incident followed an afternoon protest by Andy Lopez activists in downtown Santa Rosa, after which some of the demonstrators entered the mall and went up to the food court for dinner. Among them were Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez, Andy's parents.

Security guards, following a policy that Aharonian said had not drawn any complaints up to that point, objected to the familiar white T-shirts and sweaters that have become an emblem of the Andy Lopez protests.

After activists Nicole Guerra and her son removed their shirts, Guerra called Jonathan Melrod, an attorney and member of the Justice for Andy Lopez coalition. Melrod soon arrived and objected to the request.

At one point, Melrod stood on a chair in the food court and announced to other mall patrons that protesters were being asked to remove their shirts.

Aharonian said that when the guards realized that Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez were among the people wearing protest shirts, they eventually backed off their request.

In the days that followed, Melrod sent a letter to John Best, area mall manager for Santa Rosa Plaza, and David Simon, president and CEO of Simon Property Group, claiming the activists' free speech rights were violated.

Melrod cited a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, which he said affirms the California Constitution's extension of free speech rights at shopping centers. Days later, the mall conceded and issued a public apology to Lopez's parents.

Melrod said the mall's security rules have been violating people's free speech for some time now.

"Pruneyard is a very, very liberal and expansive interpretation of what constitutes a semi-public forum," Melrod said. "The law in this state is and was during Occupy that there's a right to set up a literature table and hand out literature in the mall. When they didn't afford that right to Occupy, they thought they could continue that policy violating the constitutional right to free speech."

Aharonian said the last guidance his security guards received about Pruneyard was in 2012, where the updated code of conduct differed very little from its current form.

The mall's "code of conduct" states in part that: "Appropriate clothing is required. Wearing apparel that obscures or conceals the face, including but not limited to hoodies or masks, or apparel that may provoke a disturbance or incite violence is prohibited."

Melrod said the "RIP Andy" shirts do not fit into these category of clothing. But even if they did, this clothing cannot be prohibited, he said.

"Even if by some possibility it alienated a patron, that's the price of free speech," he said.

Simon, in its public apology two weeks ago, said it was "deeply disappointed that security officers at Santa Rosa Plaza inappropriately addressed a group of visitors during a peaceful gathering on February 17 that included the family members and friends of Andy Lopez."

In the wake of the incident, the young security officers have become the object of public scorn both on social media sites such as Facebook and in public.

"My guards are getting flogged verbally," he said. "They're getting spit on because of what Simon said."

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.