August 16, 2011

Kansas City considers 9 p.m. curfew for youth

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A 9 p.m. curfew for young people is just one option Kansas City is considering after three teens were shot late Saturday on the Country Club Plaza.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A 9 p.m. curfew for young people is just one option Kansas City is considering after three teens were shot late Saturday on the Country Club Plaza.

But so far it's the option everyone's talking about, receiving support in some quarters as well the threat of a legal challenge.

In a letter sent Monday to community leaders, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said a new citywide curfew could be in force by this weekend.

Recipients included 14 school superintendents, police, parents groups and other community leaders.

James' announcement came after large crowds of young people congregated on the Country Club Plaza. All three shooting victims were stable on Monday, said James, who was on the Plaza at the time of the shooting.

"The purpose of this letter is to ask for your advice and input as we seek to keep our young people safe and reduce crime in our city," James wrote.

The timing of the letter, he said, was to give "as much lead time as possible to ensure success should Kansas City, its police and public safety officials determine a curfew change is necessary."

James said he would not make a decision before consulting the police and council.

Some reactions were positive. A spokesman for Westport merchants said a citywide curfew made more sense than one specific to the Plaza because that would only shift the problem somewhere else in the city.

Likewise, the Kansas City School District was generally supportive of a curfew.

"While a citywide curfew will not address all of the ills, it is a step toward remedying the concerns," district spokeswoman Eileen Houston-Stewart said.

Not everyone was pleased.

Kansas City police on Monday recommended an increased police presence on the Country Club Plaza this weekend instead of an early curfew, citing logistical problems with enforcing it.

Police commanders said, however, that they would find a way to make it work if the mayor wanted to proceed with an early curfew.

But the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said a court challenge was likely, and even some on the council were skeptical an early curfew would be beneficial.

"Can you realistically enforce a curfew throughout this city?" council member John Sharp asked. "I would prefer a more targeted approach."

Sharp said he would rather crack down on violent teens with illegal guns than punish the majority of kids who just want to hang out peacefully.

The city's current curfew, which applies to those under 18, is midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends and 11 p.m. the rest of the week.

What form the new curfew would take was unclear Monday. But James' office stressed that any change in Kansas City's ordinance would be citywide and, thus, less subject to legal challenge.

Legal challenge

All the same, a court challenge is likely from the ACLU.

"The more restrictive they get," said ACLU lawyer Doug Bonney of curfews in general, "those are the things that concern us."

The likely trigger for a lawsuit, he said, would be setting the curfew at 9 rather than a later hour for unsupervised youths to be off the street.

"I think probably that is too early," Bonney said.

Highwoods Properties, which owns the Plaza, had called for an earlier curfew even before Saturday night's violence. James said in his letter that solving the problem will take the entire community's cooperation.

"It cannot just be the city, or the police department or churches or schools; rather it must be all of the above and more. Whatever the solution is, I know it begins and ends at home. Parents are the first and best option to monitor their children and keep them safe," James wrote. "Working together, I know we can turn this negative incident into a positive turning point in our community."

James spokesman Danny Rotert said it would take at least nine votes from the 13-member council Thursday to implement the curfew on an emergency basis.

Police concerns

Deputy Police Chief Cy Ritter said an early curfew presents logistical challenges, including where to detain dozens or more youths of varying genders and ages, and how to find their parents.

Ritter also said police might be accused of selective enforcement on the Plaza if they didn't enforce the curfew elsewhere.

An early curfew would also likely require more officers and more of their time than beefed-up enforcement, which was effective in combating teen violence this spring, Ritter said.

If the addition of extra police officers doesn't solve the problem, police said they would support changes to the curfew ordinance. City officials and police could then have time to work out some of the logistics over the school year, including getting support from Family Court and possibly the Missouri Children's Division, before next summer.

But police said they could double the number of officers working on the Plaza and reinstitute the "mobile crowd-response plan" they developed after problems arose in 2010, when hundreds of youths tramped through the Plaza.

Sgt. Joey Roberts, who supervises the mounted patrol, said the crowd Saturday was no different in size or makeup from previous weekends.

"It's exactly how it's been, mostly the age range of 11 to 14," he said. "And believe it or not, that's the age range that seems to be the hardest to deal with."

Also surprising, police said, is that girls have been the bulk of the problem recently. Girls have met to fight on the Plaza and have caused other general disorder, including throwing rocks at other youths and heckling a Plaza maintenance worker who was scooping horse manure.

Other options

Experts who have studied the issue say curfews should be only one part of a more comprehensive approach when dealing with situations like the ones in Kansas City and Philadelphia.

"You can't arrest your way out of this problem," said Leon Andrews at the National League of Cities.

A curfew needs to be combined with "prevention and intervention strategies," he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo said she thought an earlier curfew would be a partial solution that has had good results in other cities, but "not a complete answer."

Another strategy, Circo suggested, would be working cooperatively with the "businesses that attract these large crowds," such as the movie theater on the Country Club Plaza.

James Meredith, spokesman for Cinemark Holdings in Plano, Texas, said the company was very concerned as a tenant of the Plaza. But Saturday's problems occurred on the "other end" of the Plaza, by the Cheesecake Factory, not the movie theater, he said.

"The shopping center has a very difficult issue with these flash mobs," Meredith said. "We are working with the shopping center trying to solve this problem."

Circo predicted the council will move quickly to deal with the problem.

"I think you will see some action this week," she said.

City Council member Ed Ford said the council is considering half a dozen strategies, including the curfew, more controls over the Plaza movie theater, gun checks and more cooperation from parents. He said the council also wants to hear recommendations from police and other civic leaders.

He noted that teens gathering on the Plaza is nothing new, but having kids shot within earshot of the mayor at the Plaza on a Saturday night is.

"It's a wake-up call for everyone," Ford said.

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