Mosley Street in Old Town routinely fills up as crowds spill out of the nightclubs at closing time, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was no exception.
Police want people to move, not mingle, so “there’s not a flare-up” of violence such as the shooting incidents that were a weekly occurrence for a while earlier this year, Lt. Doug Nolte said.
But this crowd – estimated to be in the hundreds – was not dispersing, despite orders from police officers for patrons to keep moving.
“There were people fighting,” Nolte said.
Though off-duty officers are routinely hired by the Old Town Association to increase police presence in the downtown entertainment district at closing time on weekends, Nolte said, there were none working that night because it was Thanksgiving. With a smaller security presence on hand than normal, the police supervisor on the scene decided to use tear gas to disperse the crowd.
“We put out a small canister of it – it’s not like the Old Town area was blanketed in a fog of tear gas,” Nolte said.
A canister “the size of a desk stapler” was set off at about 2 a.m. Friday in the 200 block of North Mosley, he said.
“We hope we never have to use it again,” Nolte said. “The whole thing about it is, it worked.”
When the crowd saw the gas deployed, it immediately began to disperse. One person claimed to have an allergic reaction to the tear gas, police officials have said, but the person declined medical treatment at the scene.
Tear gas is a non-lethal weapon that is part of the police department’s arsenal, Nolte said.
“It’s routinely used on SWAT calls” when officers are trying to flush people out of a house or room, Capt. Max Tenbrook said.
But he can’t remember the last time Wichita police used it outdoors, he said.
“It’s kind of ineffective” outdoors because conditions could take the tear gas away from the intended area, Nolte said.
“In a downtown urban area, with winds blowing around, it could easily do that,” Nolte said.
The incident will likely be discussed at a meeting of the Old Town Association Wednesday, association president Charlie Claycomb said.
“There will be officers there,” Tenbrook said.
Anytime there is a “use of force” by an officer – including simply drawing a weapon – there is a “routine review” to see if circumstances warranted that response, Tenbrook said. A similar review will occur for the use of the tear gas.
But Nolte said rumors that an officer has been suspended because tear gas was deployed are untrue.
“There’s a stigma to what he did,” Nolte said. “That stigma is that it’s somehow outside of a proper way to do things.”
In people’s minds, he said, they envision utter chaos and officers in riot gear – and it wasn’t like that in Old Town that night.
Security cameras that have been placed around Old Town did not capture video of the incident, Claycomb said.
“They’re still not functioning properly,” he said.
Any video of the incident would have been taken by people with cellphones or by cameras operated by merchants in the area, Nolte said, but police have not yet received any yet.
Brian Shapiro, owner of Doc Howard’s at 252 N. Mosley, did not respond to requests to discuss the use of tear gas.
Ryan Gates, managing partner of Heroes Sports Bar at 117 N. Mosley, said he hadn’t heard about the incident until contacted by media.