To protect the Plaza, tighten teen curfews all year

03/01/2014 5:00 PM

03/01/2014 5:57 PM

Can I, a white guy from Johnson County, comment on the mobs on the Country Club Plaza without sounding racist?

No, probably not.

Can I, a white guy from Johnson County, not comment on one of the major issues facing this metropolitan community — the possible decline of nightlife at our crown jewel of Kansas City?

No, I think not.

This is a matter of deep concern to those who cherish our city’s real community center, the space that acts as our town square.

City and law enforcement officials are aware and concerned.

The previous Kansas City police chief, in a blog about past crowds of juveniles on the Plaza, wrote:

“We are taking a number of measures to ensure those who shop, visit, dine, and stroll around Kansas City’s historic Plaza can do so without fearwe plan strict enforcement for future weekends.”

That was written several years ago.

The problems have not gone away.

After the most recent incident, when 150 youth gathered on the Plaza on a Saturday night, creating a disturbance by fights, interruption of traffic, walking in the street and, loitering, Darryl Forté, police chief since 2011, said he really, really is going to attack this problem.

The chief has called for more arrests and citations, undercover cops, surveillance cameras, and opening the Brush Creek Community Center at night as a multi-pronged approach to get things under control. He also has begged for parents to take more responsibility for their children.

The Plaza has a unique problem that makes this crisis harder to deal with.

It may be the largest non-downtown shopping district anywhere in America where all the streets and sidewalks are public.

At Ward Parkway Shopping Center, where throngs of youth were scaring away customers, officials successfully dealt with the issue as a privately owned center with curfews and tough enforcement of their own rules; unruly crowds at the Plaza, meanwhile, must be handled more gingerly.

As one youth who was arrested recently said, “This is our Plaza, too.”

And right he is. The streets and sidewalks on the Plaza belong to every citizen. Perhaps that might change if the streets and sidewalks were privatized and controlled by Plaza owner Highwoods Property. That is unlikely, though an idea worth considering.

But just because the Plaza streets and sidewalks are public does not give the right to individuals or groups to do as they like.

The Plaza is a public heritage that must be inclusive, but that inclusiveness must not be trampled on when mobs effectively push out other patrons.

The strongest card Forté has to play is the curfew card. The 9 p.m. curfew in entertainment districts only applies to the summer months, yet the latest disturbances occurred in the winter. (Later curfews exist year-round.) Shouldn’t the earlier curfew be extended year-round? Forté has said he does not want to tamper with curfew laws, but maybe that should be reconsidered.

I sympathize with the police chief who faces political pressures to balance safety, public right-of-way and racial profiling issues. Yes, the arrests made are almost totally of black youth. That they are predominantly black raises deep socio-economic questions that cannot be dismissed. Forté, who is African American, understands this all too well.

But because the mobs are young and because they are mostly black, does not mean that nothing should be done about the rash of misbehavior.

I think Forté gets that this is a legitimate crisis.

The future of the Country Club Plaza as a night entertainment and shopping district is in peril.

Still, it is imperative that we have a world-renowned shopping and entertainment district where all are welcome. That means all.

Except those who would disrupt others.

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