OKC, KC police: Staffing key to quelling nightlife district violence

10/05/2013 4:49 PM

01/06/2014 7:03 AM

Providing security and working to prevent violence in night-life districts like Wichita’s Old Town has to be a multi-pronged, evolving and united effort, say police in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo.

One key piece, police supervisors in the other cities say, is having an adequate police and security presence, especially at closing time when crowds typically become the source of problems. What gets tricky or controversial is determining what is too much or not enough, and how to use it.

There’s a lot at stake in Old Town, where millions of dollars in public and private money has been invested for decades in what has become a multifaceted entertainment area, with shops, restaurants, condos and clubs within walking distance of downtown and Intrust Bank Arena.

When it comes to providing security for a nightlife district, “You can have enough plans in place but if you don’t have enough bodies in place, it’s just going to fall on deaf ears,” said Oklahoma City police Capt. Brian Williford, who commands officers assigned to the city’s Bricktown entertainment area.

Bricktown has roughly 30 clubs, and it is similar to Old Town in its mix of properties and in its feel. Like Old Town, it is a former warehouse district that sits next to the downtown. Most nights, the Oklahoma City police devote six officers and a supervisor to Bricktown.

But on Friday nights, the number is increased to 16 and to 18 on Saturday nights, Williford said. The increased presence comes from money allotted to pay overtime for the extra officers from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weekends.

This past Monday, Wichita police announced new short-term security measures in Old Town. That followed a Sept. 22 shooting that killed 25-year-old Kolby Hopkins and injured six others as crowds spilled out of nightclubs at closing time.

After the shooting, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said that nearly a dozen officers quickly responded to the gunfire. Some thought it wasn’t enough officers. Others might argue that 500 officers wouldn’t have prevented the shooting.

After the shooting, the city is spending more for overtime to increase the staffing to about 20 officers around closing time in Old Town.

Because the increased deployment is being paid for with overtime money, it will not draw officers from other beats, so the department does not expect that response times to other parts of the city will be affected, said Lt. Doug Nolte, the police department spokesman.

Four of the five new measures spelled out in the Monday announcement deal directly with increasing the police presence or with deploying on-duty, off-duty and reserve officers in specific ways, such as randomly walking through nightclubs, using the police helicopter and monitoring security cameras.

Williams continues to analyze staffing needs for Old Town, Nolte said.

“He said this many times: You don’t just make a plan and call it good,” Nolte said. Old Town staffing varies, depending on changing needs, Nolte said.

‘Double-edged sword’

Ryan Gates, managing partner in the Old Town sports bar and grill Heroes and a member of the Old Town Association’s Entertainment District Task Force, said by e-mail Thursday that the task force “is researching the logistics of hiring off-duty officers to have an increased security presence in Old Town as one of many possible long-term resources for safety.”

It’s too early to say how many off-duty officers could be hired, he said.

“I firmly believe that an increase in police and private security presence both immediately and long-term is a step in the right direction,” Gates said.

In Kansas City, Mo., police who patrol the city’s entertainment areas rely on off-duty officers and private security officers to help supply an adequate presence, said KCMO police Capt. Darren Ivey.

“The more people out there, the better,” Ivey said. “Presence, I would say, has got to be the No. 1 thing.”

In his e-mail about police presence in Old Town and the recent shooting there, Gates said: “It is easy to point out what could have been done differently after a crime is committed with 20/20 hindsight and I feel the Wichita Police are being treated unfairly in a lose-lose situation. The WPD are being accused of not having a large enough presence prior to the shooting, however, prior to the shooting patrons were complaining of too many officers in Old Town.

“It is a double-edged sword and we need to find the right balance between keeping people safe when in Old Town while making our historic neighborhood accessible and inviting to visit.”

Gates said the next steps in Old Town also include using state-of-the-art cameras, communication technology between businesses, possible road closures for crowd control and traffic flow, and possible new policies on crowd dispersion.

Wichita police investigators are still trying to determine exactly what factors were involved in the latest violence, Nolte said. The shooting so far doesn’t appear to involve a problem with any club. “We work well with club owners of Old Town,” he said.

People seemed to be dispersing before the shots rang out. Investigators are trying to determine what precipitated the shooting.

“We don’t have the full picture,” Nolte said.

A number of people had cellphones out, taking pictures of a brewing fight around the time the shots rang out, but only a few people have provided information about the shooting to police, and police are still seeking any cellphone footage. A suspect has not been arrested.

The shooting resulted from “one individual who through some poor decision-making” opened fire, Nolte said.

“That’s the issue here. It’s not Old Town.”

‘It’s going to happen’

Williford, the Bricktown police commander, said every entertainment area experiences violence.

“Nobody’s going to be immune to it,” he said. “It’s going to happen. You just have to do the things” to reduce the chance of it happening.

“Any time you have a small area like your Old Town and our Bricktown it’s inherently going to cause problems” when you have a big crowd come into it.

At times, he said, “You’re bringing more people into an area than it’s really designed to hold. It’s just a matter of policing it effectively.”

One night in May 2012, Bricktown had extra large crowds, many of them drawn to a promotion surrounding an NBA game. A shooting broke out. According to Williford, it basically stemmed from two young women getting into a fight and a boyfriend getting in between them and firing a gun, wounding eight people.

A few years ago, Bricktown had trouble with juveniles gathering in a plaza near some big events.

“Whether they’re in the clubs or not, they’re still down there causing problems,” Williford said.

The situation prompted an earlier curfew, requiring that teens 18 and younger leave Bricktown by 11 p.m. That way, the teens are long gone before the clubs let out, which helps keep crowds manageable.

Good communication with the clubs is also key, Williford said. Twice a year, police, fire-safety personnel and licensing agencies meet with club managers and owners. Communication is important because club ownership often changes, he said.

The clubs “have to police themselves also,” he said. That includes training doormen to “keep a certain element out,” which includes watching to see that people don’t put on gang “colors” or gang-related clothing after they get in because it can create a flashpoint for violence.

“The key to not having problems is to not let them get in to there to begin with,” he said.

The clubs also are asked to watch their capacity to make sure it meets fire safety and overcrowding laws and to keep the sidewalk clear in front of the club.

Keeping up with security needs is “just a constant battle,” Williford said. He said Bricktown is in the process of adding security cameras.

“I think it’s a fair statement that nobody thinks you can have too many cameras,” Williford said.

Still, violence occurs “out of the blue,” he said. A few months ago, gang members drawn to a special promotion engaged in a drive-by shooting near the Bricktown police station. No one was injured.

Traffic flow

The drill in Bricktown on weekends, beginning around 1 a.m., is to strategically place officers around clubs that have big crowds that night or are known to have problems.

All officers have access to cars; one-third to one-half use bikes to patrol during part of their shift. By around 1 a.m., they position themselves on foot. A big part of the job is to keep crowds moving.

About 1 a.m. or little before, certain streets get barricades to create one-way traffic so motorists can get out but not back in. The goal is to get the crowds safely away from the area before 3 a.m.

One of the new security measures being used in Old Town involves altering traffic flow to discourage motorists from cruising.

As with Bricktown and Old Town, traffic and crowd control is important to efforts in Kansas City, Mo., said Ivey, the police captain. Kansas City police regularly use barricades, cones or officers to control traffic flow in the city’s entertainment areas.

They used barricades in Westport a few years back when cruising was a problem. The cruisers would yell things from their cars, instigating fights, Ivey said.

Kansas City police also have found out that if they leave the barricades up too long, patrons feel a “sense of entitlement” and stand around in the middle of a blocked-off street, creating another kind of crowd problem, he said.

Kansas City police designate an “entertainment captain” to oversee entertainment areas on Saturday nights in the summer, Ivey said. At times, administrative officers are called in to help with hot spots.

The key is “making sure you have enough coverage down there, no matter how hard it is,” he said.

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