Ideas are floated to make the Kansas City Zoo safer

03/19/2014 12:33 PM

03/19/2014 7:29 PM

At least one person who will be attending a special meeting to review Tuesday’s violence at the Kansas City Zoo will bring some specific ideas to the table.

Maybe split free zoo days for Clay County residents from free days for Jackson County residents to reduce the size of the crowds.

Consider sending out vouchers, possibly in tax bills, so people can use their free days whenever they want.

Throw as much security at crowd control as needed, including police mounted patrols.

“Whatever it takes, we’re going to do it,” said Pam Mason, Clay County presiding commissioner and chairwoman of the Zoological Tax District Commission. “We’re not going to tolerate this.”

Residents in Clay and Jackson counties were promised four free days a year at the zoo in return for joining the tax district.

But crowds of rowdy youths on Tuesday led to brawls, gunfire and arrests — and a lot of frightened zoo patrons. It was the second disturbance on a free day in less than a year.

Officials from the zoo and the city parks department are tentatively scheduled to meet Thursday with Mayor Sly James, City Manager Troy Schulte and Police Chief Darryl Forté to discuss options to forestall future incidents.

“We want to move forward while everything is fresh in peoples’ minds,” said Mark McHenry, director of the Parks and Recreation Department.

The city owns the zoo.

Schulte said there was a temporary hold on future free days while officials come up with a plan to ensure safety. The next scheduled one is June 24.

“Technically we’re on hold until we can figure it out,” zoo director Randy Wisthoff acknowledged.

Police on Wednesday said the disturbance started when large groups of teens began arriving late in the day at the zoo, when an estimated 19,000 patrons were already inside.

By 3:30 p.m., there were 500 to 600 teens and young adults congregated outside the entrance when officials decided to close the zoo early. It was scheduled to close at 4 p.m.

Wisthoff said the zoo offered vouchers to latecomers.

Off-duty officers working at the zoo called for on-duty backup, and they began trying to move people away from the entrance. That’s when police said “numerous” fights broke out at the entrance and in zoo parking lots. While officers struggled to break up fights, gunshots were heard.

Police said Wednesday that the sound of shots came from a parking lot on the west side of Starlight Theatre, away from the zoo. But some witnesses said they thought the shots came from the parking lot directly in front of the zoo.

More officers, including tactical teams, were dispatched, and the situation was brought under control about 15 minutes later. The final zoo patrons were cleared from the area by 5 p.m.

No one was injured, but “numerous” arrests were made for assault and fighting in public. The specific number of arrests was not available.

James said Wednesday that the incident was one of “young people who were misbehaving badly,” but he did not see it as related to crowd control incidents on the Country Club Plaza. He said it was a different time of day, a different venue and different people.

Debby Ballard, chairwoman of the Friends of the Zoo, said the zoo feels a commitment to honor its promise to voters about free days.

“We just need to try to find a way to make that work,” she said. “Safety is everybody’s primary concern.”

Mason said there was no question in her mind of canceling the promised free days for Clay and Jackson county residents.

“They paid for them, and they’re going to get them,” she said.

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