Is curbing crime in Westport — and KC in general — a hopeless cause?

Oct 5, 2008
The Kansas City Star

Let’s start by stating the obvious.

No one has the answer to solving the crime problem in Westport or the city in general.

But community leaders, merchants, police and family members of crime victims offered suggestions in response to Wednesday’s column, which focused on public-safety concerns within Kansas City’s best-known entertainment district

Why Westport? As Councilwoman Beth Gottstein contends, “Westport is symptomatic of what’s going on across the city.”

And because a recent homicide prompted the head of the merchants association to ask for help dealing with the problem.

Violent crime was up citywide last year, we learned recently after police officials corrected errors in a previous report, and the trend is continuing.

The same holds for Westport. From April 1 to Sept. 30 (warm months when street crime is more likely to occur), there were five rapes, seven aggravated assaults, 15 armed robberies and one murder in the area from 39th to 43rd streets, Southwest Trafficway to Broadway.

In that same period in 2007 there was one rape, seven aggravated assaults, 20 robberies and no murders.

Then again, it’s all about where you draw the lines, Misty Kirwan reminded me when we spoke over the phone.

Her son, 21-year-old Chris Bartholomew, was shot and killed in May 2007 just across the street from that statistical area, in the 3800 block of Broadway. He was there to pick up a friend who’d been drinking in Westport and was caught in a crossfire.

Said Kirwan, “I’m just a mom whose son is gone because of the crap that goes on.”

Curbing that involves ending the chaotic scene that arises in Westport on weekends after midnight when hundreds — sometimes thousands — of underage teens show up to hang out.

Police and security officers are so taxed keeping order and the bar entrances open to customers that they have less time to patrol fringe areas.

It was while the cops were dealing with the crowd two weeks ago that a 24-year-old woman was shot and killed in an attempted robbery in a nearby parking lot.

“It’s getting extremely bad down here,” said Colby Garrelts, who owns the Bluestem restaurant. “Four of my servers have been mugged.”

How to reduce the crowds of minors and young adults who have no business being in an area that caters to an over-21 crowd late at night?

Gottstein would add a crackdown on cruising to what has been tried already.

Under a proposed ordinance she says she’ll introduce soon, vehicles could be stopped after a set number of passes. Police could then check for curfew and other violations and order drivers to leave an area.

“We have to figure out a way to get the kids out of there,” Gottstein said.

The cruising ordinance would apply citywide, addressing similar problems in Swope Park and other congested areas.

Would it make much of a difference?

Some, says Alvin Brooks, head of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.

But Brooks says one more ordinance won’t solve this longstanding problem.

“I think there have to be broader programs for young people in general,” Brooks said.

Talk to the kids hanging out in the parking lots and sidewalks of Westport late at night, Brooks said, “and the first thing they would tell you is, they haven’t got anything else to do.”

True, they shouldn’t be out that late, Brooks said. And of course, parents should take more responsibility.

But any discussion about Westport security and crime in general ought to focus on youth programs, he said.

Monica Carter agrees.

“Programs like Night Hoops do work,” said Carter, whose niece, Devin Cassidy, was killed in that attempted robbery two Saturdays ago.

Carter’s husband, Michael Carter, owns radio station KPRS, whose target audience is the black community.

Perhaps, she said, the young men accused in her niece’s murder were listening that night. And perhaps she and her husband could help some kind of new campaign to convince young people that there are better things to do than hang out on street corners in Westport.

“But how do you reach the thugs?” she said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

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