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Police use of tear gas in Old Town debated

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, at 12:02 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013, at 11:37 a.m.

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 Howard’s, 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 don’t think there’s any question that it’s 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 Howard’s 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 Howard’s 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 Howard’s doors, and a cloud of tear gas formed beneath the club’s 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 club’s 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 won’t come out.

It’s 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 Howard’s 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 didn’t 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.

“I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve 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 what’s happening, Williams said.

The cameras are still being fine-tuned and weren’t operating when the tear gas was used last week, officials said. But the cameras won’t 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.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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