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Monday, April 21, 2014

For police, Old Town beat rarely involves guns

By Hurst Laviana
The Wichita Eagle

It’s 1:58 a.m. on Saturday, and there’s a heavy police presence in the 200 block of North Mosley in Old Town.

More than a half-dozen clubs have just closed, and hundreds of people, some of them obviously intoxicated, are leaving the bars.

“The name of the game at this point is to try to prevent them from congregating in the middle of the street,” Wichita police Sgt. Jason Stephens said as he and a half-dozen officers monitored the crowd. “If we can keep everyone moving, it seems to prevent a lot of things from happening.”

Exactly a week earlier, in nearly the same spot, four Old Town patrons were shot and wounded. A fifth – a man with a gun – was shot to death by police after refusing their orders to drop his gun.

Police officials say they aren’t sure why the gunman, Marquez Smart, 23, opened fire in an area where police were readily visible. Stephens said the 200 block of North Mosley is where you’ll find the heaviest police presence on any weekend night in Old Town.

If this Saturday morning was any indication, officers who patrol Old Town are rarely forced to deal with shootings or other violent acts. There was no shortage of liquor violations or people urinating in public. There were a handful of calls involving people who were obviously under the influence of alcohol and behaving strangely.

As a rule, Stephens said, people who go to Old Town can count on being safe if they avoid conflict and watch their surroundings.

“I’d say 999 times out of a thousand, you’re going to be just fine,” he said. “By and large, people who come to Old Town drink responsibly and act appropriately.”

Police said the weekend of the shooting was busier than most. There was a concert that Friday night at Doc Howard’s at 252 N. Mosley featuring R&B singer Pleasure P. There was another concert at America’s Pub at 116 North Mead featuring rapper Lil Scrappy.

Stephens said the bar closing that Saturday morning was handled the way it always is – with the heaviest police presence at the north end of the block, where the shooting occurred.

On Saturday morning, four uniformed off-duty officers stood by with Stephens at Second and Mosley and monitored the activity through the night. The off-duty officers’ salaries are paid by the Old Town Association, Stephens said. There are typically two on-duty officers in patrol cars whose beats take in the Old Town area. Stephens said as many as a dozen officers whose beats don’t include Old Town typically migrate to the area at closing time if they’re not pursuing calls.

“It’s not a written policy, but it’s pretty much understood that at 2 o’clock in the morning, it’s a good idea to head up to Old Town and assist with the closing,” he said.

On busy nights, Stephens said, police will close some streets to facilitate the movement of people out of Old Town. On the night of the shooting, a surveillance tape from Doc Howard’s shows that a police car with flashing lights was blocking traffic from entering the 200 block of North Mosley in the minutes before the shooting. The crowds were smaller this weekend, and the block remained open to traffic as the clubs were closing.

A typical weekend

For Stephens, who was patrolling Old Town in a white unmarked car, the calls on Saturday morning were typical for a weekend in Old Town.

At 12:40 a.m., he responded to a check-the-welfare call made by a bouncer at the Brickyard at 129 N. Rock Island. The bouncer told dispatchers that a woman who had been denied entry to the club because she was drunk had just taken a nasty fall as she walked away.

Stephens caught up the 45-year-old woman a few yards south of the club. Fresh blood flowed down the bridge of her nose.

“Did someone do that to you, or did you fall?” Stephens asked the woman. “How’d it happen exactly?”

“I fell,” the woman said. “I was just standing here and I fell.”

“How much have you had to drink today?” Stephens asked.

“A little bit,” the woman said. “I’m an old woman. I can drink.”

After the woman assured Stephens she wasn’t planning to drive home, another officer agreed to call her a cab.

“She’s a grown woman,” Stephens said as he headed back to his car. “If she wants to take a cab, she can take cab.”

A few minutes later, Stephens responded to a burglary-in-progress call at a condominium building at 242 N. Mead. The suspect, a woman wearing a white shirt and shorts, was sitting outside the door when Stephens arrived.

The woman explained that she was staying at Hotel at Old Town and had attended a Friday night concert at Intrust Bank Arena. She said she thought she was going back to her hotel room when she tried to get into the locked condominium building.

“How much have you had to drink?” Stephens asked her.

“A lot,” the woman said. “Am I in trouble?”

“You didn’t break the door did you?” Stephens asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” the woman said.

She was allowed to walk back to her hotel on her own.

Stephens said one of the biggest problems on weekends in Old Town is people walking in the street. He slowed as he passed two women walking north in the 100 block of Rock Island.

“Hello,” he said through his open window. “Would you try to use the sidewalk please? I don’t want anyone to run over you.”

“OK. Sorry,” one of the women said as they moved to the left.

In an alley a block away, Stephens shined a flashlight toward a woman he thought was throwing up behind a car.

“I had to pee,” the woman said sheepishly as she came out.

With the bars about to close, Stephens said he didn’t want to spend 10 minutes writing her a ticket for urinating in public.

“Under different circumstances, I’d cite her,” he said.

What club owners do

As police outside were preparing for an onslaught of people coming out of clubs, the clubs were also trying to ensure that the closings went smoothly. Bryan Shapiro owns Doc Howard’s and Club Liquid, which is across the street. He said he never closes both clubs at the same time.

“We usually end up closing Liquid or Doc’s, depending on who’s busier, 10 to 15 minutes earlier than the other one. That way we don’t dump everyone out at the same time. We don’t want to overwhelm the streets.”

Doc Howard’s is the biggest club in Old Town, with a capacity set by the Wichita Fire Department at 1,428. Shapiro said that as a rule, he caps the occupancy at 1,300.

Shapiro said he employs 30 to 35 security workers at Doc’s and asks them to use metal-detecting wands to screen customers on nights when a scheduled event is expected to draw a big crowd. He said the patrons were screened on the night of the shooting, and no guns were found.

The screening turns up an occasional pocket knife, he said, and lots of mace carried by women.

“I’ve been down there a decade, and I’ve never come across a gun,” he said.

Shapiro said he also has more than a dozen security cameras monitoring the activities outside his clubs.

“We’ve done everything we can to be proactive,” he said. “What else can we do? Call in the National Guard?”

This weekend at Doc Howard’s, Friday night was country night, and the crowd was smaller than usual. Country star Jason Aldean played a sold-out show at nearby Intrust Bank Arena.

As the time neared 1:30 a.m., Stephens joined the officers at Second and Mosley to monitor Doc’s and the other clubs near the intersection.

A few blocks away, a half-dozen beat officers from other parts of the city were setting up near First and Rock Island to monitor the closing of the clubs on the south end of Old Town.

Although there was no visible exodus of people from Doc Howard’s, the crowd at Club Liquid began pouring out the front door at 1:45 a.m.

Stephens and the other officers were standing right outside and quickly shuttled them north toward their cars.

“Let’s go, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s go,” the officers said anytime two or more people stopped to talk.

Within five minutes, the street was nearly empty.

“There’s not nearly as many people here as I’ve seen on some weekends,” Stephens said as he headed back to his car.

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