The Country Club Plaza got through the summer without much trouble from crowds of youth, Kansas City police say.
But all that changed in the area in and around the Plaza about a month ago.
Since then, police have dealt with swelling crowds and problems, including a rush about 9:30 p.m. Saturday when a large crowd of youths in Mill Creek Park next to the Plaza suddenly darted away in all directions. Several teens told police someone in the crowd had a gun, but officers could not identify a gunman.
The crowd soon coalesced again and about an hour later, police heard someone yell, “He has a gun!” Officers then spotted at least six separate fights in the crowd of more than 100 youths.
Officers felt it would be too dangerous to wade into the crowded, darkened park. Instead, a sergeant used a pepper fogger to send irritating fumes downwind to the J.C. Nichols Fountain, where most of the fights had broken out. The crowd safely dispersed.
“We can’t go in there and break it up,” said Sgt. Gregory Williams. “With that many kids, and there’s really no lighting, you can’t even see what’s going on....If they turn on us, someone’s going to get seriously hurt.”
The crowds have grown noticably at the park on Saturday nights since school started, police said.
“It’s been crazy,” said police Sgt. Joey Roberts, who supervises the mounted patrol unit. “Last week at one time in the park there were 200-plus kids.”
Roberts said problems started earlier than usual Saturday night.
“Typically, we don’t have problems until 8 or 9 p.m.,” he said. “But (Saturday) night it started as early as 6 p.m. with kids shadow boxing, running in the streets and blocking sidewalks.”
Officers aren’t sure what’s behind the boost in activity in recent weeks. They say it could be the start of classes, the cooler temperatures, or the end of the Mayor’s Nights program, which offered dancing and athletic events for youths over the sumer. Officers who work off-duty at the Plaza movie theater say they have noticed increased ticket sales in recent weeks, especially Saturday night when a popular new PG-13 horror movie opened.
Attempts Sunday to reach a spokesperson for Highwoods Properties, which owns the Country Club Plaza, were unsuccessful.
Police believe many of the youths who gather at the park are simply waiting for rides after movies let out. Officers have learned that pushing the kids out of the park into the surrounding areas only spreads disorder that can last for hours.
On Sept. 7, a large crowd assembled in the park without problems, police said. But officers had to use a pepper fogger in previous weekends. Police say it’s often not the size of the crowd, but the composition that decides whether things get violent.
“What happens is you get the wrong cliques or the wrong groups together,” Williams said, adding that a single fight can prompt additional fights. “Most of them are good kids, but they can get caught up with the crowd.”
The lack of lighting inside the park can also embolden some youths to misbehave, police say.
Williams said he planned to check with the city to see if more lighting could be added inside the park.