A preliminary review indicates the use of tear gas by police to disperse a large, increasingly unruly crowd in Old Town last week was appropriate given the circumstances, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said Wednesday.
A small number of officers were attempting to get a crowd of several hundred people leaving nightclubs at closing time to move along to their vehicles at about 2 a.m. Nov. 23. But people were resisting and several fights were breaking out, Williams said.
A single canister of tear gas, about the size of a desk stapler, was activated.
It proved to be effective, Williams said, because the crowd immediately dispersed and all clashes ended.
But the attorney representing Doc Howards, the nightclub next to where the tear gas was released, said he questions whether the use of tear gas was appropriate given the circumstances.
I dont think theres any question that its effective, said James A. Thompson, an attorney with Klenda Austerman. The question that has to be answered is, Is it reasonable?
In his opinion, Thompson said, the use of tear gas that night was not justified.
Video footage from the Pump House across from Doc Howards shows perhaps a handful of men getting in position to fight right outside the club, Thompson said. The tear gas canister was released moments later at 1:50 a.m., as people were still streaming out of Doc Howards in the 200 block of North Mosley.
Surveillance footage shows hundreds of people running south away from the cloud of tear gas. The canister was released only a few feet from Doc Howards doors, and a cloud of tear gas formed beneath the clubs canopy and even entered the club through both the entrance and exit doors, Thompson said.
One camera shows an officer kicking the tear gas canister south a few feet to get it away from the clubs entrance.
One club employee suffered a broken hand as people rushed inside to get away from the tear gas and another was kneed in the head by a fleeing patron, he said.
I think a majority of nights they do a good job in Old Town, Thompson said of the police. I think this was an individual who made a bad decision.
Supervisors have tear gas included in their arsenals, Williams said, but it had never been used in Old Town before. Tear gas is most commonly used by SWAT teams dealing with someone who has barricaded himself inside a house or building and wont come out.
Its not unusual for as many as two dozen police officers to monitor Old Town on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights including regular beat officers and off-duty officers hired by the Old Town Association to increase the police presence at closing time.
Doc Howards routinely hires off-duty officers to increase police presence at closing time, Thompson said, but were unable to that night because the previous day was Thanksgiving.
Officers wanted to spend the holiday with their families, Williams said.
Thanksgiving night is a time you think people could go out and have a good time without worrying about clashes, he said. But that didnt prove to be the case.
None of the fights last Friday morning appeared to be gang-related, Williams said.
Two clubs across from each other have about the same closing times, meaning there can be 2,000 people in the 200 block of North Mosley at about 2 a.m., he said.
Ive been there, he said. Ive seen it.
The crowd that night was smaller than usual, Thompson said, because the Pump House was closed and Club Liquid nearby only had about 100 patrons leaving at closing time.
Young adult men like to drive to the area, park and crank up their music to get the attention of women leaving the clubs, Williams said. It leads to loitering, which then can lead to clashes among people who have been drinking.
Old Town was the scene of shootings on four consecutive weekends earlier this year, leading to city ordinance changes allowing police to be more proactive in dealing with problems that arise there.
Enhanced security measures include the installation of four surveillance cameras on buildings in the downtown entertainment district.
You can only have so many officers on hand to monitor whats happening, Williams said.
The cameras are still being fine-tuned and werent operating when the tear gas was used last week, officials said. But the cameras wont see everything that happens, Williams said.
At the end of the day, he said, it comes down to personal accountability.
They have to be held accountable for their actions, Williams said. They have to be willing to walk away from a fight. They have to be willing to moderate how much they drink before they leave a nightclub.