Cops on the trail in Johnson County
All Kansas City parks and trails will close at midnight and reopen at 5 a.m. once a revised city ordinance is approved by the full City Council this week.
The city is reacting swiftly to a swell of concern after a series of homicides in recent months that occurred on or near trails in south Kansas City, but several speakers at a committee hearing said park safety has long been an issue citywide.
“It bothers me that it took something like this to bring attention to our parks,” said Pat Clarke, who has been caring for — and worrying about — Oak Park at 43rd Street and Agnes Avenue for years.
“This was the conversation we were supposed to have,” he said.
The ordinance, drafted with the recommendation of the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, won unanimous approval by the City Council’s Neighborhoods and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.
The committee also advanced a resolution to the full council that directs the city manager to work with the parks department on a comprehensive safety plan over the next six months. Both the ordinance and the resolution will go to the full council Thursday and are expected to pass.
City Council members had originally drafted an ordinance that specified eight parks — Budd Park, Case Park, Cooley Park, Hidden Valley Park, Indian Creek Greenway Trail Park, Kessler Park, Mulkey Square Park and Ilus Davis Park — that would be closed between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.. But commissioners with the parks board proposed making changes that would apply to all of the city’s 221 parks.
The council adopted the new language, which establishes the hours that all of the parks will be open from 5 a.m. to midnight — rather than emphasizing they’d be closed.
“We want it to be comprehensive, and we want a welcoming approach,” Parks and Recreation Department director Mark McHenry said after Wednesday’s hearing.
More than a dozen people, many representing neighborhood associations, supported the ordinance and the resolution, offering insights and ideas for the work on a safety plan.
“People are passionate about their parks, and they want to help us,” McHenry said. “That creativity from citizens is going to help make a strong safety plan.”
Public safety has been a concern at several parks, including Ilus Davis Park downtown. Businesses around the park, including the Federal Aviation Administration, have been pressing the city to address problems, the Downtown Civic Council’s Sean O’Byrne told The Star recently.
Most neighboring cities already limit the public hours in their parks, City Councilman Scott Taylor said at Wednesday’s hearing. He provided a list of 15 area cities that have restrictions in place.
Research by The Star has found that on the Kansas side of Indian Creek Trail, a Leawood ordinance closes the route, and all other trails within city parks, from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise.
Leawood parks are closed during the summer from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., said Capt. Brad Robbins. People mingling during closing hours — mostly teens or couples — are usually just told to leave rather than face arrest, he said.
“The benefit for us is to control what’s happening in the evening hours,” he said. “Once the sun’s been down a while, you’re not using the trail for recreation.”
Robbins said homelessness rarely presents itself around Indian Creek in Leawood as it has in the past year on the Missouri side of the trail. Last summer a mattress was found in woods just west of the state line, but no squatters have recently been reported.
Closing hours elsewhere along the Indian Creek Trail, which extends into Olathe, are set by municipalities where the path cuts though city parks and greenways. City police patrol those parks.
For the 17-mile Mill Creek Streamway trail, which runs from the Kansas River to Olathe, gates at access points are secured from dusk to dawn. It and other park spaces maintained by Johnson County are patrolled by a force of about two dozen police officers assigned only to county parks and trails.
Fully commissioned, members of the park police are armed and wear chest protectors. Ever since the creation of the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District in the 1950s, park police have functioned under their own administration separate from municipal police or the Sheriff’s Department.
“We make sure officers are out walking a section of streamway trail every day, every shift,” Anderson said. “Just to be visible.”
Though it has been decades since some Kansas City parks had their own rangers, Kansas City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said in an interview that a parks-only police force “could be a subject of discussion as we move forward” developing a plan for park safety.
Several council members and community members described the limits on hours as just as first step toward the larger safety plan to come.
Other safety measures could call for more lighting, changes is the physical designs to eliminate hidden areas, more tree trimming and security cameras.
City Councilman Kevin McManus, saying he was “humbled” by his recent meeting with a family member of one of the recent victims on the trail, welcomed the broad city involvement for park safety.
“These are difficult, difficult, difficult problems,” he said. “But they have real consequences.” The city needs the whole community’s help so that “we are doing everything we can to assure safety in our parks.”