It’s a quarter to 3 a.m. in Westport, and police are on the move again into the alcohol-juiced crowd.
Street fight No. 7 of the night is underway.
This will be the last one. And this will be the second and last time that a blast of police pepper spray scatters people away into bent-over, hands-on-their-knees fits of coughing and gagging.
A beautiful night under a half moon comes to an end for Kansas City’s popular entertainment hub. The action this Saturday night and Sunday morning, police said, was a return to normal two weeks after an early morning shooting just outside the party zone stoked renewed fear for Westport’s safety.
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Dressed in black and shades of blue and gray, the uniformed officers swarm into the crowd like panthers through grass — their actions caught on the cell phone videos of many partiers-turned-spectators.
White flood lights illuminate the hundreds of people who have rolled out of the bars or walked in from the outside to play in the streets at Pennsylvania Avenue and Westport Road.
“This is a bar district,” Papa Keno’s Pizzeria employee Tom Tindall, 28, had said before the night began. “Of course people are going to get rowdy. It happens every Saturday.”
“There’s only so much you can do,” said Chandler Davis, 30, who watches every one of these weekend dramas as the doorman outside the Beer Kitchen.
The crowds were going to be back by midnight. He knew it. The weather was too perfect.
“I’d be out there if I were off work,” he said.
The officers — a combination of about two dozen on-duty and off-duty Kansas City police, Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies, traffic control staff and Westport security — really didn’t get into action until 1:35 a.m. Sunday, when the first altercation flared up on Westport Road between Pennsylvania and Mill Street.
Until then, the night’s earlier hours — the easy hours — involved a lot of standing by in groups, thumbs hooked on heavy belts, sometimes consenting to be photo props for posing brides in passing bachelorette parties.
It’s tense work, Kansas City Police Sgt. Jonathan Rivers would say later, not long after he was the one who uncorked the last shot of pepper spray.
The police were determined to regain control of what Rivers said has been a good summer in Westport with few major incidents.
Rivers did not want a repeat of two weeks ago, when, in those early morning hours, he could feel “the crowd turn.”
Several altercations boiled over that night. During one of them an officer was assaulted. Rivers directed police to begin asking bars to shut down early. And then, while they were clearing the streets, shots were fired just north of the entertainment district at 40th and Pennsylvania.
Police rushed to the scene, many of them fighting through a curious crowd that was also running toward the gunfire.
Police shot and wounded a man who was firing a gun into a crowd. Soon after, sheriff’s deputies found two men suffering from gunshot wounds in a car that had fled the scene.
“We want people to come down here and feel safe,” Rivers said.
When you have hundreds of people — even more than a thousand — partying on the street at any one time, there are tactics the police use to keep the fights isolated, he said.
A bank of officers will respond quickly, walking fast but not running. “When we run, people chase after us,” Rivers said.
They get in between people and move them in opposite directions out of the district, rarely making any arrests because that can turn a crowd and encumber officers, he said.
Past midnight Sunday morning, lines of 70 people and more each were queued up to get inside the bars at Kelly’s Westport Inn and Johnny Kaw’s. The crowd — many of them teenagers — filling the streets in between the clubs was swelling.
Watching the growing crowd were balloon artist Dan Krulewich, 50, who has been out here 16 years, and 66-year-old Michael Wheeler, better known as the KC Superman.
The gray-bearded Wheeler wears glasses wired with blue lights, a Superman crest on his chest, a red cape, shorts, blue socks and red Nikes. He’s been watching over Westport’s crowds for 33 years, he said.
“The cops tell me, ‘We’ve got our badges and guns, but you’ve got the angels,’” Wheeler said.
He did not come out two weeks ago when there was gunfire, but he’s back this time and feels he is a presence of “peace.”
Maybe he is.
After the night’s first fighters are separated, Wheeler, defying his age, is getting passersby to take his Chiefs football and throw him passes as he runs nimbly on his Nikes down the street.
A trend develops: More sober friends bear hug their fight-minded partners, taking them away from an altercation while police stand ready but hold back, even as one of the belligerents spits curses at officers.
“You b—!” “You’re all b—es!”
Shortly before 2 a.m., the officers take off on their most urgent action of the night, fanning out through a parking lot north on Pennsylvania, some with guns drawn, as police cars with sirens and lights pull in from the far side.
The pace slows. They circulate back. An apparent false alarm.
An onlooker suggests to one of the officers that the swarm was a bit of an overkill.
The officer is unapologetic.
“When we take a call that someone is armed with a pistol,” he said, “that’s how we respond.”
Before the night is done, they will separate two women whose fighting left shoes and a purse scattered on the sidewalk and one screaming, “I’ll kill you, b—!”
Officers tackle and handcuff two women who won’t stop fighting, while other officers and security stand as a barrier between them and the aggressive press of onlookers, pepper spray canisters at the ready.
And when the pepper spray comes at the end of the night, Rivers sprays it into the ground at the feet of someone chasing the last fight scene, who may have taken a swing at the officer.
It sears in the throat. People within about a 20-yard radius cough as they join the exodus out.
Clearly, most of them enjoyed themselves. But there is some frustration among regular visitors who have been coming to Westport for years, who worry that the younger crowd that gathers after midnight is damaging the experience.
“I’ve been coming since the ’70s,” 55-year-old Tony Banks said as he watched everyone disperse. “It just makes things worse for the people who are trying to come down here and have a good time. They’re going to run everyone off.”
The night’s totals come to seven fights, at least. Two pepper sprayings.
But no arrests, Rivers said. And no gunfire.
The numbers that are impossible to count are all the people who came to enjoy Westport’s scene and the business they brought.
And here it was 3:20 a.m., the streets clear — just the cops and some stragglers left.
“Everyone’s gone home,” Rivers said. “That’s a win … A normal Saturday in Westport.”