Saturday Night Special
When the cops sweep Westport’s streets, everyone better be careful.
Roland Wayne leans against the rail separating the parking lot from the alley in front of Panera Bread, peering into the crowd below him. Hundreds of people are gathered where the alley dead-ends into Mill Street. Not much is going on, just a lot of looking and talking and bodies rubbing against one another in hopes of igniting the spark of a new encounter or renewing an old one. It’s a little before 3 a.m., and like most everyone there, Roland is doing his final see-and-be-seen before the cops officially shut down another Saturday night in Westport. By 3:20, the KCPD and Westport security personnel will have swept the alley and parking lot clean of people.
Roland comes to Westport despite the cops. He’ll put up with them at the end of the night in exchange for a few hours of hanging with hundreds of other young black people. Westport is one of the few options he’s got left for fun on a summer night in Kansas City.
“They don’t give us this much freedom anywhere, not at the parks or the car washes on Prospect. So I come here. It’s the best it’s going to get,” he says.
While Roland talks of freedom, Central Patrol Division Commander Major Anthony Ell speaks of public safety. It’s his 50 officers who face the crowds every Saturday night. “The population on any given Saturday, in all the bars, is 2,500 to 3,000, with 1,500 to 2,000 moving about or hanging out,” Ell says.
From a cop’s point of view, it’s the hanging-out that’s the problem. Westport is too small for the crowd size, Ell says, and that many people hanging out can make sidewalks impassable. “Everyone has a right to be there, but don’t block the sidewalk,” he says.
Last Saturday was a typical example. A tight, slowly moving stream of young people wandered down from Kelly’s, past Stanford’s to America’s Pub on the north side of Westport Road, and from Harry’s Bar and Tables, past the food-vendor trucks and down to Mill Street on the south side, and then back up. Every 10 yards or so a police officer stood watching, sometimes calling out, “Ladies and gentlemen, move along. Please, don’t stand.” It took awhile to walk the block, but it wasn’t much worse than the crush at a sold-out Chiefs or Royals game.
On Westport Road, cars slowly made their way through the crowd. Radios blared hip-hop and rap. People on the sidewalk recognized their friends in the cars. Sometimes they walked over to talk, emptying the sidewalk a bit but, in turn, holding up the traffic flow. People were showing off what they had and who they knew.
There was lots of trash talk, heavy with male bravado. Women were wooed, suggestions were made. The overly solicitous were ignored; sometimes their hands were slapped. There was no public drinking, but every so often the sweet odor of marijuana drifted about. It was just a slice of urban life. A pain to get around, but you live with it if you’re out to party.
Between 1:30 and 2 a.m., police officers began opening up the entrance to the parking lot in front of Buzzard Beach and Panera Bread. They divided the crowd on the south side of Westport Road and blocked the parking-lot entrance. People weren’t allowed to cut across the lot’s entrance; cops turned them back, telling them to go either west or east on the sidewalk.
This police action usually coincides with the emptying of Kelly’s and America’s Pub on the north side of Westport Road, ostensibly so the people leaving the bars and the people on the sidewalk don’t overwhelm the area. Police tactics vary, but the end is always the same.
The police behavior disturbs Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. After his organization began hearing complaints, Kurtenbach went to Westport one Saturday in late July, then again last Saturday.
During his first exposure to the Westport street sweep, Kurtenbach says, police lined up shoulder to shoulder at Westport Road and Pennsylvania. Vehicle traffic had been stopped and police cars blocked the street. The police started down the street, shining flashlights and telling people to move along. “One cop told me, ‘Get the hell out of here,'” he remembers. If people didn’t move, they were threatened with arrest.
The crowd was forced down the hill to Mill Street. “On the bar side of the street, the whites went home. And blacks crossed the street and joined the group on the vendor (south) side,” Kurtenbach says. “By 2:30 a.m., the vendor side was all black. People were just hangin’ around — no noise problem, no drunks, a well-behaved crowd.”
Kurtenbach was troubled by what he saw. “To be simply standing on a street corner, just hanging around — you have a right,” he says. “The police department needs a better reason (to act).” He believes the police sweep the sidewalk to separate the mainly black crowd from the whites leaving the bars. He described the scene as “surreal, more appropriate in South Africa during apartheid.”
Ell, who is African-American, views it differently. He claims the sidewalks can have “total gridlock” that puts public safety at risk.
On August 12, Kurtenbach goes back to Westport, along with Brad Manson, an attorney and member of the ACLU. Manson is there to videotape the crowd and the police. “This is only a problem by Kansas City’s definition,” Manson says of the hanging-out. “The authorities don’t like black and white mixing — it raises huge racial fears.”
Kurtenbach says the crowd is larger than the one three weeks earlier. Manson wanders off occasionally to videotape down the street. Traffic inches by, and police cars parked in the center lane add to the congestion. At 1:45 a.m., Kurtenbach wonders why the street sweep hasn’t begun.
Not long after, a van runs a red light at the intersection of Westport Road and Pennsylvania. Three officers rush to the driver’s-side window and order the driver out. He’s a large black man. Two officers work to get his arms around his back and lead him toward the back of a police cruiser. The man looks over at the crowd and smiles sheepishly. He looks stoned. The cops attempt to force his head down on the car’s trunk. He pulls up and begins to struggle. Four more officers rush in to grab him. It takes six officers to bring him down, but none of the officers draws his nightstick. A few people yell from the crowd. One man circles the man and the police, asking, “What you arresting him for?”
The cops lift the man to his feet and lead him to a paddy wagon. One pulls the van to the middle of the street and the police begin to search it. Another cop walks up with a video camera. The cops then display a gun they’ve supposedly found in the van, what Ell later says is a 9mm machine pistol loaded with 27 bullets in an attached 30-round clip. The van and most of the cops then disappear to do the paperwork.
Without police monitoring the intersection, pedestrian traffic becomes continuous, blocking traffic. Two women in a car begin to inch forward into the crosswalk, while pedestrians make exaggerated displays of accommodation and defiance. The crowd finally makes an opening, and the driver eases through.
With the pedestrians focused on the first car, no one pays attention to the second car. That driver breaks loose the tires, accelerating quickly behind the first car and brushing a young woman standing in the intersection. People around her gasp. Another inch and she would have been hit.
A few feet away, a cop inside a police cruiser opens his door and says, “Get out of the street and that won’t happen.”
Ell says it’s up to an officer how to handle a particular situation. “Instead of citing individuals, we’d rather get their cooperation,” he says. “We tell our officers that arrest is a response to a worst-case scenario.”
Kip Ludwigs doesn’t buy that, or the public-safety rationale.
Ludwigs was arrested in Westport early Sunday morning, August 6, for, she says, asking the police why she couldn’t walk through the parking lot in front of Buzzard Beach to meet a friend at the bar.
After leaving the Hurricane around 1:30 a.m. with her friend Jeff Spoor, Ludwigs stopped to buy a falafel at one of the vendor trucks. She then walked down the sidewalk to find four or five officers blocking the parking-lot entrance. Ludwigs says one of the officers told her, “You need to walk that way (west). You can’t come through here.” Ludwigs describes the officer’s tone as “angry, put-out.”
She says the officer couldn’t give her a reason. “When I asked why I couldn’t walk through, the response was, ‘Because my superiors told me so.'” Other people also wondered the same thing, Ludwigs says.
Ludwigs kept asking why she couldn’t walk through. “Drinking wasn’t a factor in my belligerence,” she adds.
“I kept repeating the question,” Ludwigs says. “I had my falafel in my hand and asked about three different times.” She says she got about two bites of her falafel and “the next thing I’m on the ground.” Spoor says Ludwigs had turned away from the officers when they grabbed her from behind.
As she was on the ground, Ludwigs says, she asked why she was being cuffed. “We don’t need to tell you why,” said one cop.
Cuffed, Ludwigs asked again, “What is this for?”
“For resisting arrest,” said one officer.
“How can I be resisting arrest? No one told me I was being arrested.”
Every time Ludwigs attempted to stand up, the cops would hold her down. Again, she asked why she was being arrested.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” said one officer. “All I have to do is put my hands on you.”
Ten or 15 minutes went by.
“Are you going to read me my rights?” Ludwigs asked.
“You know just enough about your rights,” said one cop.
The cops then led Ludwigs, 25 years old and 105 pounds, to a waiting paddy wagon. There, she was frisked and asked by another officer, “Do you have any sharp objects in your pockets, ma’am?”
“No, sir, but I have some hummus in my pocket.”
“Is that some kind of weapon?”
“No, sir, it’s a condiment.”
The cops apparently did not appreciate her sense of humor. Around 4:30 a.m., a friend posted Ludwigs’ $500 bond. She was charged with obstructing an officer “in the discharge of the officer’s duty by refusing to obey a lawful order and to move on a sidewalk to allow the flow of pedestrians.”
Ludwigs feels the police violated her rights. “I feel many times the Westport security police and Kansas City police just demonstrate their power, not to make people feel safe,” she says. People have a right to walk where they want and hang out, she says, as long as they aren’t causing trouble. And she is angry that people accept being pushed and herded around in Westport. “We have a police presence every weekend. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking it’s okay to have a police presence. If anything, they start trouble — they don’t suppress it.”
Ludwigs has talked with Kurtenbach, and the ACLU is looking into the legality of her arrest. “She was told she couldn’t do something that was perfectly lawful to do,” says Kurtenbach. Her arrest “sums up our concern with the sweep tactic.”
Major Ell, who witnessed Ludwigs’ arrest, believes the officers handled themselves professionally. “Her defiance led her to get arrested,” he says.
At almost the same time as Ludwigs was being arrested, Carlton Eubanks was being taken to the ground on Mill Street next to America’s Pub. Eubanks’ arrest was videotaped by his friend Ron Looney.
Eubanks says that he, Looney, and two others were walking to the Sun Fresh grocery store, where their car was parked, when officers descended upon them. Eubanks was carrying a bottle of champagne someone had given him on the street. “It wasn’t open. I was taking it to my car,” he says.
Looney’s videotape begins with two cops surrounding Eubanks as one begins to put a wrist lock on him. Eubanks pulls away and, in doing so, causes both he and one cop to spin around in a crude sort of dance. With his free hand Eubanks is holding the champagne bottle upright, though it doesn’t appear to be open. Another officer then comes up behind Eubanks and applies a choke hold, then three cops bring him down. While he’s on the ground with the champagne bottle jammed against his chest, an officer sprays Eubanks with Mace, holding the can just a few inches from his face. He then points and sprays in Looney’s direction. It’s easy to read the agitation on the cop’s face.
From 75 yards away, Ell also saw Eubanks’ arrest. He says officers told him the champagne bottle was open and that Eubanks swung the bottle at an officer. The arrest report, signed by Officer Matt Wilson, backs Ell’s contention: “The suspect tried to pull away from me and while doing so he swung item #1 (champagne bottle), which was in his left hand, in an attempt to hit me. I ducked and he missed me.” But Looney’s videotape doesn’t show Eubanks swinging the bottle at an officer.
Eubanks remembers being charged with assault, resisting arrest, and violating the street. Even though the arrest report says Eubanks swung the bottle at an officer, the charges are for “obstruct(ing) and resist(ing) arrest.” Eubanks spent three days in jail until his mother could post the $750 bond. Despite his arrest, Eubanks is reserved in his criticism of the police.
“I don’t have a problem with them doing their job,” he says. But, he adds, “I know officers who know how to talk with us. You can tell the experienced officers.” Eubanks says he has been going to Westport for six years and his arrest was the first problem he’s had. Eubanks and Looney also have contacted the ACLU. Legal director Lisa Hatanson has seen their tape, and the group is considering what action to take.
Regarding the street sweeps, Kurtenbach says, “We plan to formalize our concerns in a letter to the police department.”
But the crowds on Saturday night aren’t an issue for the police alone, says Kurtenbach. He cautions Westport business owners not to depend on the police to solve the crowd problem.
Ell seems to agree. “We don’t like the situation (street sweeps) either,” he says, sounding frustrated. “Regardless of the resources, it’s a very demanding job our officers face.” He knows the cops in Westport on Saturdays could do better work somewhere else in the city.
He has suggested that the bars consider closing at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, saying, “It would diminish the demand” of people coming to Westport, but the Westport Merchants Association rejected the idea.
“Some of those bars do a huge amount of business between 1 and 2 a.m.,” says Greg Lever, executive director of the Association. “The reality is that there is a belief that even if they close at 1:30 a.m., the crowds would still come. People aren’t coming for the bars, they’re coming to see and be seen because it’s a safe place to hang out.” Lever says the problem “is not the bars emptying.”
Lever also discounts concerns about the street sweeps, citing the public-safety issue. He says police have used sweeps in years past. “They’re done in a very specific area for a finite amount of time. We’re talking about 15 minutes — people are losing sight of that,” Lever says.
But the sweeps last longer than 15 minutes and the police are committed in fairly large numbers for hours from Saturday night into Sunday morning.
Ell has also suggested blocking Westport Road to vehicular traffic on Saturday. “The merchants felt when we blocked the streets it created a street-party atmosphere,” he says.
But eliminating the people cruising by in cars could ease sidewalk congestion and take away one element of the party scene that brings people to Westport. And considering that one woman was almost hit by a car, it would also make the streets safer for pedestrians.
Ell and his officers seem to be holding their breath until school starts. But the fact that there hasn’t been a major incident on the streets of Westport is due to the remarkably well-behaved crowd, which seems to accept being herded around for no specific reason.
How long that lasts is anybody’s guess.