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KC hoping strict curfew stems problems on Plaza

KC hoping strict curfew stems problems on Plaza

August 21st, 2011 by BILL DRAPER, Associated Press in News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Complaints about throngs of young people intimidating shoppers and diners in a well-known, upscale section of Kansas City had already sparked attention among city leaders, but the problem escalated last weekend when someone fired shots about 50 yards away from the mayor.

Now, the city is hoping a strict curfew at the Country Club Plaza through the end of September will help officials get control of the situation.

"It seemed like it had been building," said Mayor Sly James, who walked around the Plaza last Saturday night in response to the reports of youths congregating, especially on late weekend nights, and the rising tensions it had caused.

The mayor said he visited the shopping and dining district to see if it was as troubling as people were saying. And nothing he saw in the first couple hours seemed to warrant any emergency action on his or the city's part.

Then the shots rang out.

The mayor's bodyguards pushed him into a flower bed and shielded him. James was not hurt, but three teenagers were hit by the gunfire. The wounds that the 15-year-old girl and two boys, ages 13 and 16, suffered weren't considered life-threatening. No arrests have been made.

On Thursday, less than a week after the shooting, City Council members unanimously agreed to impose a 9 p.m. curfew through the end of September for unaccompanied youths younger than 18 years old at the Plaza and four other entertainment districts. The council also changed the summer curfew for the rest of the city to 10 p.m. for youths 15 and younger, and 11 p.m. for those who are 16 and 17.

The parents or guardians of those children caught out after curfew can be fined up to $500.

James said it startled him the number of younger teenagers - in some cases preteens - who were at the Plaza when he toured it.

"They were from different areas of the region, and I wondered how they got there since they didn't drive," he said. "Some said they were dropped off by a mother or father or uncle, some came with older siblings or next-door neighbors. They were down there unsupervised. When we did find an adult with a group, it was a rare exception."

Kansas City police planned to send dozens of additional officers to the Plaza during the weekend, and the city set up two detention centers to hold curfew violators until they are picked up by a parent or guardian.

Critics of the curfew said it's unfair to punish youths who did nothing wrong - especially those who come from parts of town where there are few activities to keep them busy on weekends.

Others say the move shows city leaders are more concerned about keeping affluent areas safe than poorer ones.

Brandon Ellington, a former Kansas City Council candidate who runs the civic group Voices of the People, said a 9 p.m. curfew in the entertainment districts doesn't address the root causes of violence among young people in the inner city. He said it instead shows how far the city will go to protect affluent areas while ignoring the safety of residents in poorer neighborhoods, particularly on the city's east side.

"The mayor went down there for a P.R. stunt, and when he was there shots were fired," Ellington said. "The violence that happens every day in Kansas City, mostly on the east side, came to the front doorstep."

He said a 9 p.m. curfew "is like a slap in the face because there have been hundreds of murders over here and nothing's been done."

"When shooting happens on the Plaza, we need a citywide curfew," Ellington said. "There have been over a thousand some-odd shootings (in the inner city), but nobody talked about a curfew. Nobody talked about improving police relations. Nobody talked about anything."

Highwoods Properties, which owns and manages the Plaza, had asked the city to implement an earlier curfew because it feared paying customers were being driven away by unruly crowds of young people. The company on Friday applauded the City Council's decision, and the summer curfew also will be in effect in the Westport, downtown, 18th and Vine and Zona Rosa districts.

Crowds of underage youths flocking to entertainment districts have been a problem for years in Kansas City. In the past, the prime destination was the Westport area near the Plaza, where the under-18 crowd sometimes topped 1,000. Police reported seeing children as young as 7 walking through the area well after midnight.

Efforts to thin the crowds, including stepped-up curfew enforcement, led the youths to claim racism. The young throngs that invaded Westport each weekend were largely black, and the merchants' customers largely white. Merchants said the problem wasn't about race, but instead about crowds keeping paying customers away.

Claims of racism also were raised when the 4-year-old Power and Light District in the city's downtown enacted a strict dress code barring patrons from wearing things like baggy clothes. The district now charges a $10 fee to get into the area after midnight on Fridays and 11 p.m. Saturdays, payable only by credit card, to keep out people who are more likely to cause problems than to spend money.