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Youths causing problems on the Plaza ‘will no longer be tolerated,’ KC police chief says

Updated: 2014-02-18T15:21:31Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL and LYNN HORSLEY

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté plans to meet with his top commanders today to prepare a beefed-up enforcement plan for the Country Club Plaza for Saturday night after youths created disturbances last weekend.

The plan could include undercover officers patrolling the streets and possibly a detention room at a community center where troublesome juveniles would stay until their parents or guardians picked them up. The room would be supervised by officers and stocked with food and supplies in case youths need to stay overnight.

“This will no longer be tolerated,” Forté said of the youth problems that have plagued the Plaza in recent years. “My intent is to make it safe and peaceful for whoever wants to go down there.”

Police commanders will reach out to community partners to come up with a long-term solution, Forté said.

“This issue is way bigger than the police. We have to do more to involve more people to find ways to minimize disruptions and not displace the kids to other areas.”

Mayor Sly James wasn’t available for comment Monday, but several City Council members said more youth opportunities were needed. They also said a new youth commission could provide direction for solutions.

Saturday’s problems weren’t the worst seen on the Plaza, just the most recent. The entertainment district has become a magnet for youths on Saturday nights, mostly in warmer months. But problems have arisen in colder months, too. In January, police arrested a 17-year-old after he allegedly threw rocks at officers. In January 2013, police confiscated a 9-inch knife from an unruly youth.

The violence peaked in the summer of 2011 with a shooting that injured three youths and sent the mayor diving for cover. Afterward, officials enacted a 9 p.m. summer curfew in the city’s entertainment districts. A 9 p.m. curfew would have had limited effect Saturday because the problems began earlier that night.

“This had nothing to do with curfew,” Forté said. “It had to do with behavior.”

Business owners worry the unruly behavior will deter customers.

“It’s great that people want to come to the Plaza,” said Curt Diebel, owner of Diebel’s Sportsmens Gallery. “It’s frustrating that unruly people want to come, too.”

Richard Ng, owner of Bo Lings Chinese restaurant, said the Plaza is a big draw on Saturday nights regardless of age. But some of his customers complain about the crowds and the lack of parking spaces in peak times. Ng said he worries that crowds of youths will add to those concerns.

Police think the warmer weather, combined with three new movie releases, may have drawn more youths to the Plaza on Saturday.

Officers were called to the Cinemark Palace about 8:15 p.m. to disperse a group of 100 to 150 youths. Some had been ejected from the theater for disruptive behavior, police said. Once they left, a large group of youths followed.

Some youths repeatedly darted into the street to disrupt traffic then ran back to the sidewalk. They ignored repeated demands to stay on the sidewalk, so officers cited three of them, ages, 17, 18 and 19, for walking in the street where a sidewalk is provided. One teen also had been involved in several disturbances. He scuffled with the arresting officer and provided misspellings of his name. He was cited for resisting arrest and hindering, Forté said.

Several fights broke out, including one between a boy and a girl. A 13-year-old boy was cited for a violation, but the nature of the violation was unclear Monday. A 12-year-old girl who was unsupervised and watching several fights was released to her parents.

The trouble ended about 10:20 p.m. Small groups of youths remained, but no problems were reported after that, Forté said.

James was out of the office Monday for President’s Day but his spokeswoman, Joni Wickham, said the mayor talked with Forté on Sunday and planned to speak with him again today or Wednesday.

Wickham noted that the City Council just approved a youth commission to solicit concerns and ideas. The commission will consist of up to 15 high school juniors, seniors and college students from throughout the city, plus five other representatives of youth organizations. It will deal with issues such as the Plaza disturbances and how the city can address them.

Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee lamented that, years ago, Kansas City had bowling alleys, video arcades, skating rinks and plenty of movie theaters, but many of those venues catering to youths have closed or moved to the suburbs.

Sharp applauded the mayor leadership’s in funding more youth-enrichment activities, but those efforts have concentrated on the summer months. Sharp noted that the city may have to think about providing more activities during the school year.

“Kids don’t just go into hibernation during the winter,” he said. “The private sector is just not providing the entertainment venues for young people it used to, and in the absence of that, government may need to do a little more to provide recreational activities.”

Councilwoman Jan Marcason, chairwoman of the council’s Finance Committee, said the Parks and Recreation Department is increasing its community center programming year-round. She hopes the new youth commission can provide suggestions.

Councilman Jermaine Reed said more entertainment opportunities for young people and families in the heart of the city would be nice, but government can’t do it all. He said Saturday’s incident demonstrated that young people and their parents both need to act more responsibly.

“I would say it’s more of a behavior problem from young people needing to behave appropriately when out in public and parents needing to take responsibility,” he said.

The problem could affect the rest of the city, police say.

Police assign a group of officers to work the Plaza every Saturday night in addition to Plaza security guards and off-duty officers hired by the Plaza. When problems erupt like on Saturday, it diverts more officers to the area and “away from critical matters” at a peak time for 911 calls, Forté said.

Forté said he wants to research the impact of the officers’ time spent on the Plaza handling juvenile disorder, including how it delays police response to other calls.

“We have to think about the volume of calls,” he said.

Officers also spend precious time babysitting juveniles instead of responding to emergencies.

Earlier this year, an officer had to provide a ride home between 1 and 2 a.m. for a 12-year-old who said his parents told him to take a bus home, but he missed the bus. Another officer told Forté he spent eight hours looking for relatives of one juvenile and 10 hours trying to find a home for another juvenile.

Forté said he wants to put more of the responsibility on parents, which is why he is considering the detention room. If parents of violators are inconvenienced, perhaps they will be less likely to drop off their children unsupervised for hours at the entertainment district, Forté said.

“We’re going to make a statement this weekend,” he said. “And it won’t be a one-time statement. We’re not going to be able to change everything overnight. We need to change the mindsets of some parents and guardians.”

The Star’s Joyce Smith contributed to this report. To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com. To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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