Government & Politics

Following KC Council vote, weapons screening starts in Westport next spring

Westport will begin screening for weapons on weekend nights next spring to try to reduce violence crime.

The weapons screening follows a Kansas City Council vote Thursday allowing privatization of some sidewalks in the entertainment district.

“This is innovative. It’s outside the box, but we feel like it’s going to be very effective,” said Kyle Kelly, co-owner of Kelly’s Westport Inn, who has been involved in months of negotiations to address weekend gun violence.

The council voted 8-5 in favor of a pair of ordinances that would allow the city to relinquish its ownership of sidewalks along the district’s main entertainment corridors to the Westport Community Improvement District.

The measures privatize the sidewalks on Westport Road from Broadway Boulevard to Mill Street, plus the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Avenue from 40th street to Archibald Street.

The metal detection checkpoints would be in place on Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Those voting for the ordinance were Mayor Sly James, plus council members Scott Wagner, Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Dan Fowler, Katheryn Shields, Alissia Canady, and Lee Barnes. Those who voted no were Jermaine Reed, Quinton Lucas, Jolie Justus, Kevin McManus and Scott Taylor.

Westport business owners say owning the sidewalks can let them screen visitors for weapons and lead to a reduction in crime. Opponents worry the approach could lead to discrimination and sets a bad precedent of giving away public assets to private interests.

The Westport Regional Business League originally wanted to privatize the main streets in the district after a spate of violent, often late-night crime. The business coalition thought screening for weapons could help make the district safer. The police cannot screen for weapons on public streets or sidewalks.

Shields, who sponsored the ordinances, said she could only support giving up the sidewalks. She also wanted the city to be able to reclaim the sidewalks if the City Council ever thought privatization wasn’t working as promised.

If the city takes ownership of the sidewalks back within the first three years of privatization without giving any reason, the city would have to reimburse the Westport CID up to $132,784 for its expenses.

But the council also approved an amendment Thursday, saying that the city doesn’t have to reimburse the district for its expenses if civil rights violations occur. Provisions call for the district to hire civil rights observers for each entry point to monitor the process and to report any violations to the city’s Human Relations Department.

The district is also supposed to seek a weekly report from the Kansas City police department of any arrests made at screening points and to provide a report to the City Council.

The district must provide clear signs telling individuals what they can do if they are denied entry. The city is also supposed to provide up to $10,000 for an information campaign to tell people who feel discriminated against where and how they can make complaints known.

Kelly said he wasn’t concerned about the district being accused of discrimination.

“Right now, Westport checks IDs 30 weekends a year at 11 p.m. There’s no complaints now,” he said. “Nobody is saying ‘We’re being profiled or being held back.’ We’re doing it fairly now,” he said.

Kelly said it will take about 120 days to get the weapons screening in place and to train the security officers who will do the screening, so the program is expected to take effect around April 1.

Opponents on the council said there are better approaches than just giving up public spaces. Justus urged a reduction in the number of 3 a.m. bars in Westport and called for lobbying the Missouri General Assembly to reform its gun laws, which now make enforcement more difficult in entertainment districts like Westport.

Lucas said he’s seen no convincing evidence from other cities that this approach will work. He also worried about a “slippery slope” in which the next request could be to privatize the sidewalks in the Brookside or 18th and Vine districts.

Canady said she was initially skeptical about the proposal, but she thought the city had to do something to curb the violence.

“I would encourage you all to take a bold step,” she said, noting that if it helps save innocent lives it’s worth the attempt. She said there are plenty of safeguards against discrimination, and a way for the city to take back its sidewalks if this approach doesn’t work.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

The Star spends the night in Kansas City's Westport Saturday into Sunday morning, absorbing a rollicking scene full of partiers, characters, police, fights and pepper spray.