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Old Town safety measures will be a joint effort of police, merchants, patrons

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, March 13, 2012, at 11:08 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013, at 11:37 a.m.

No one yet knows how Wichita’s Old Town nightlife district will be affected by the weekend shootout involving police that left a gunman dead and four bystanders – three of them teenagers – wounded.

But one of North America’s leading experts on risk management and crisis public relations said Tuesday that there are several steps the city and merchants can consider to prevent future violence and reassure the public that Old Town is safe.

Allan Bonner, president of Bonner Communications Management in Toronto, said that while each situation is different, the key is to respond while not overresponding to problems.

“Some risk information calms people down and other risk information alarms them,” Bonner said. “It’s just like a prescription drug. You’re never sure exactly how much to give.”

City and police officials said they are taking the shooting very seriously, although the investigation is in its early stages.

So far, they said, they’re not sure where the gunman, Marquez Smart, 23, came from or why he opened fire in an area where police were readily visible.

“We had several officers down there in this area, as we always do on a Thursday, Friday or a Saturday night,” said Deputy Police Chief Tom Stolz. “For a guy to pull a gun out, with such a strong police presence right there, that’s unusual. This guy had to know that we had several officers down there. We don’t have his alcohol or drug tests back yet, so we don’t know whether that was a factor.”

City Council member Janet Miller, who represents the Old Town area, and city manager Robert Layton said city and police officials will meet with the Old Town Merchants Association and try to figure out the proper response.

While serious violence is relatively rare in Old Town, “I am definitely committed to making sure we address to the best of our ability what happened and what changes we need to make,” Miller said.

“I think what we don’t want to do is overreact in terms of changing a whole lot of things that may or may not be pertinent to what happened.”

Layton said policing alone can’t solve the problem, and he plans to seek buy-in from merchants on security.

“Simply to say we’re going to throw more police officers at the problem is not the proper response,” Layton said.

Melad Stephan, a prominent Old Town businessman who owns two restaurants and a wine bar, said he’d be happy to cooperate and thinks other business owners will too.

“There’s bars and there’s drinks, there’s music, there’s girls, there’s people having fun, tempers flare and you have fights,” he said. “It happens everywhere.”

While the clientele for his more upscale businesses is fairly tame, Stephan said there have been complaints among merchants about a different element at some clubs.

Full crime statistics for the area were not immediately available, but Eagle archives turned up three instances of gunfire, a stabbing and several robberies and assaults — including an assault on a police horse — in the past four years.

Stolz said his department will start with data analysis to discern any patterns of violence that police can address.

“We are going to do a total data analysis: times of day, days of week, months of year, sex offenses, assaults, fights, everything, and see what is going on, down to the time of day, down to the addresses on a block,” Stolz said. “We’ll map every bit of this. We’ll look at where in Old Town that crime is happening. We’ll have detectives visit every club, study the capacities, study the people. What I think it will show is that it is pretty safe, for as many people as go down there.”

Bonner predicted that if Wichita is like most other communities, a pattern will emerge.

“The statistics show that if you’re not abusing alcohol and drugs after 1 a.m., between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. in most communities … you’re not going to get in trouble,” he said.

Suggestions for Wichita

Bonner, who has a doctorate in risk, crisis and disaster management and has written several books on the subjects, said he visited Wichita about 10 years ago and was struck by hotel security measures he encountered.

For example, guests had to use their room key card to access the elevator and could only get off at their own floor.

“That makes me think, gee, I’m in a safe hotel, but this is a dangerous community that has to put these measures in place,” he said.

Bonner, who once worked as a mayor’s chief of staff in suburban Toronto, said Wichita might want to consider putting together a sort of “council of elders” to share ideas on Old Town violence, with a cross-section of representatives including police, city officials, merchants and locally prominent ministers and psychologists.

He recommended the group be as “elite” as possible, because people who rise to leadership in a community generally know what’s going on.

Bonner said he once faced a similar situation in Canada when a high school girl was shot and paralyzed while working as a clerk at a “milk store,” a kind of small urban corner grocery.

“There was a call to close down the milk stores and naturally there was a lot of agitation,” he said. “We took a look at it at the time … and we found out that these things happen after 1 o’clock in the morning. There was no point in closing them at midnight, or 11, or closing them at night, or something like that, close them when the incidents happen.”

Bonner had several specific suggestions Wichita leaders might want to consider, including:

•  Keeping signs from blocking the windows of clubs so people can see in and out.

•  Increased and visible camera coverage of Old Town.

•  Signs designed to discourage excessive drinking. He cited an example from Great Britain, aimed at women, showing a woman dancing and later throwing up.

•  Screening club bouncers and training them to identify and bring to police attention people who show signs of getting ready to make trouble.

•  Metal detectors at nightclub doors.

Bonner emphasized that so far, no one has come up with a single solution that fits every community’s situation, which is why community input is important. And he said solutions should be thoroughly discussed and considered to avoid “knee-jerk reactions” to highly publicized incidents.

“There’s no silver bullet, all of these things are pieces of the pie,” he said.

Seeking outside ideas, seeking local input

Although he and other business owners are resistant to the idea of closing earlier, which would cost them a lot of money, Stephan said he appreciates Bonner’s other suggestions

“Those are great ideas that would help a lot,” he said.

Layton said the key he sees in Bonner’s advice is that the city needs to be proactive about Old Town’s safety and reputation and look for “best practices” from other cities.

“I’m very open to looking at what other communities have done that’s been successful,” he said.

In addition to working internally and with merchants, the city plans to reach out to Old Town patrons to find out what they would like to see done about security, Layton said.

“That’s what we need to get to, is: What would make you feel safer in that district?” he said.

Stephan praised police for their presence and quick response to problems and said he thinks merchants will be happy to help.

“Anything to help public safety and people not to get hurt and to have fun and enjoy themselves, we’re willing to try anything,” he said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-461-1079.

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