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Shooting spurs new scrutiny of Old Town security by Wichita council

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013, at 7:01 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at 7:03 a.m.

For the second time in a little more than a year, city officials are taking a hard look at Old Town security, this time in the wake of a shooting early Sunday that left one man dead and six people injured.

Steps taken last year to secure Old Town in the wake of four late-summer shootings – scattering five cameras around the 40-acre area of Old Town, rewriting business ordinances and having officers on hand to regulate the weekend influx of revelers to clubs, bars and restaurants – weren’t enough to prevent an apparent act of gang violence a little before 2 a.m. Sunday, city officials said.

Almost a dozen police officers were on the streets of Old Town on Saturday night monitoring the partiers around closing time. But no police patrol officer was dedicated to monitoring the security cameras through video screens in the Old Town police substation – something a majority of Wichita City Council members and some Old Town investors thought they were promised during the security debate last fall.

“We have to get serious right now about Old Town security,” council member James Clendenin said. “If we want to assure people that Old Town is a safe place, which it is statistically, then we have some pretty dramatic steps we have to take.”

Police Chief Norman Williams said Tuesday he was unaware of any mandate for personnel to monitor cameras.

“We do not have police personnel to monitor cameras in Old Town, particularly 24 hours a day,” Williams said.

It takes a staff of 12 to monitor City Hall around the clock, he said.

The five cameras in Old Town that police have access to, which are owned by the Old Town Association, continuously capture images and retain them for about 30 days.

The closest camera to the shooting scene was pointed to the northwest – away from the crime scene at the time of Sunday’s gunfire, Williams said.

Police spokesman Lt. Doug Nolte, sitting in on the interview, said that even if the camera had been pointed toward the shooting, it’s doubtful it would have captured clear images because of obstructions such as trees, poor lighting and distance. That camera is about a block north of the shooting scene.

When asked whether he needed more money for staff and resources to police Old Town, Williams responded that at the time of shooting, 11 police officers were close by.

It comes down to the actions of one person – the shooter, he said. The crowd had been moving to vehicles, and things were going smoothly until the suspect “for whatever reason” decided to pull out a weapon and fire, Williams said.

He said police and Old Town businesses have tried to be proactive: Bushes have been trimmed back to improve illumination. Lightbulbs have been replaced. Police have asked club owners to call immediately if a fight breaks out inside because it could move outside and escalate. Many Old Town investors have upgraded security cameras, inside and outside.

“Is adding more money the solution? I think it comes down to continuing to work together,” Williams said.

Security cameras have limitations, the police chief said.

“Cameras are not going to catch everything. … But people have it in their mind that a camera is going to capture” everything, he said.

But an alert person can see everything, he said.

“That’s where citizens are the key. … Citizens are the best camera in the world,” Williams said.

Police still need people who might have seen part of Sunday’s shooting to contact police, he said.

More cameras?

Four movable high-definition cameras with zoom capability and one fixed camera are scattered around Old Town – not nearly enough, according to several council members as well as a professional security consultant contacted by The Eagle.

What Old Town needs to deter crime and help solve crime is a network of at least 32 security cameras, said Mike Green, owner of Greenbuilt Security. Green’s Wichita business sells and installs residential and commercial security equipment, including cameras.

“There simply needs to be more of them,” Green said.

The network should use strategically placed cameras, some up close to capture physical characteristics, and others in spots where people come and go, like alleys and parking lots, Green said.

Although one camera might not give the precise, clear image police need to catch someone, when you add in other images – say someone walking off or someone getting into a car – then you can start to fill in the puzzle that leads to a suspect’s arrest, Green said.

Green suggested the cost to install a camera system would be a relatively small investment compared with the money that has gone into developing businesses in Old Town.

If having enough staff to monitor the cameras is a problem, a solution could be to spread the feeds to additional monitors in other public service stations – for example, the 911 dispatch center, Green said.

Several council members Tuesday said they believed police would be continuously monitoring the security cameras currently in place from a bank of video screens at the Old Town police bureau during closing hours in Old Town – generally between midnight and 2 a.m.

That message didn’t trickle down to the street.

Wichita police Sgt. Bret Stull, who works out of the Old Town police substation, said police periodically monitor four Old Town security cameras. But it’s not feasible to have them watched continuously, he said, without diluting the police presence on the district’s streets each night.

Having cameras won’t necessarily stop people from committing crimes or allow police to catch criminals, Stull said.

“It’s nice to have the cameras, but they’re not going to solve every crime we get involved with,” he said.

Council member Janet Miller, who said she was unaware of any mandate to monitor, said the Old Town police force is financially boxed in by the city’s tight budget. She said that restrictions on everything from clothing to food/alcohol sales ratios have made Old Town safer than it was last year, when four shootings rocked the district.

“At this point, there are some issues I don’t have answers to,” Miller said. “We need to know if this incident is an isolated one, or if it bears some similarities to the shootings last year.”

Old Town founder Dave Burk, who owns several residential and business properties downtown, agreed with Miller.

Burk said he welcomes the council’s renewed interest in security and would like to explore declaring Old Town an entertainment district, a legal designation that would give police more authority to regulate crowds.

Clendenin called the five cameras “little more than a start at this point,” joining several council members suggesting that the city needs to give police more financial resources in Old Town.

“Consider this,” he said. “A Warren Theatre, for example, has 70 to 90 cameras on each site. We have four or five. It’s simply not close to enough.”

Other solutions

Mayor Carl Brewer floated the idea Tuesday of expanding the camera system to each intersection – in Old Town and downtown. Other council members suggested that if police aren’t monitoring the cameras nightly, more staff may be required to get that done.

Those are moves endorsed by the management at Larkspur, an upscale dining and drinking establishment at 904 E. Douglas, and Heroes, a sports bar at 117 N. Mosley.

Eric Davisson, general manager at Heroes, said he’d like to see a suggestion by the Old Town Association implemented immediately: Closing side streets like Mosley, Rock Island and Mead at bar closing times.

“That eliminates some of the circling when the bars close,” he said. “Once they close, it’s hard to get away from that but it’s something that can be cut down.”

Larkspur’s Shawna Spahr said it is gearing up for an expected, but temporary, downturn in business. Last year, business fell off temporarily after the late-summer shootings. Today, “it’s all people have been talking about,” she said.

“One of the television stations’ question of the day was what part of town are you afraid of,” Spahr said, “and a caller said Old Town. I’ll be glad when this thing gets out of the media.”

Davisson said he didn’t expect any business fallout from the shootings until next weekend.

Clendenin acknowledged that the council cannot eliminate violence in Old Town or anywhere in Wichita. But the area’s economic viability demands that the council beef up security, he said.

“We have to move quickly on this,” Clendenin said. “The city has invested millions in Old Town. Business people and investors have invested millions in Old Town. If we want them to move out, then we do nothing.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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