This article was originally published by the Wichita Eagle newspaper on May 7, 2016

Balancing act: How Wichita police keep Old Town safe Saturday nights

by Oliver Morrison



Wichita police officers Dustin Noll and Jamie Schepis pulled up carefully, a block and a half away from a suspicious house on a recent Saturday. They saw a car with tinted windows pull up.

An officer had chased two cars connected to that house in the past week.

Noll used his cellphone, rather than his radio, to call and text another officer, who was going to watch the car with them.

“High-level dope dealers will hire people to do nothing but listen to the scanners,” Schepis said.

But the patrol officer whom Noll called had to respond to a 911 call. “Not even 45 seconds,” Schepis said, before the other officer was called away.

Noll and Schepis are members of south Wichita’s Special Community Action Team (SCAT). They do proactive police work and respond to high-level crimes and don’t have to respond to every 911 call.

SCAT officers are some of the only Wichita police who have the time to sit and wait at a house like this.

Old Town is key

Patrol South, where Noll and Schepis work, like most of the Wichita Police Department, has recently had a hard time hiring enough officers.

Although South is not the most understaffed bureau, it faces an additional challenge that no other bureau does: Old Town.

Old Town has the kind of high-density living and an active nightlife that young adults across the country are flocking to.

Even though Old Town will have explosive growth, according to Jason Van Sickle, president of the Old Town Association, it could grow faster.

More than 80 percent of the young people moving in to Old Town have been men, according to Van Sickle. The main reason for that, he said, has been the ongoing perception by women that it’s not safe. So Van Sickle is turning his current building, Flats 324, into a gated community.

Old Town business owners and city officials met for eight months to figure out how to make the area feel more welcoming. But just two weeks after their last meeting, Van Sickle said, a major shooting erupted in Old Town.

In the early morning hours of March 5, officers said, they found shell casings from the shooting as far as three blocks away from the victims. No one was seriously injured because it was a relatively slow night in March. If it had been a busy Saturday night in July, hundreds of people might have been walking along those three blocks.

When Van Sickle’s committee began to share some of the recommendations, the shooting made it seem as if, instead of proactively trying to make the area safe, the city was responding aggressively to this one shooting.

This is just par for the course, according to Schepis: Every few years there is a bad incident in Old Town, and the police put on a show of strength. It’s a cycle that has been repeated over and over, he said.

And the most vexing part about it is that everybody knows how to solve the problem, according to Sgt. Roger Rundt.

“Every entity, every stakeholder in this whole mess, knows what the solution is,” Rundt said. “And they have all discussed it inside, outside, backwards, they all know what they need to do. So I mean it’s no one person holding things up or blocking the process. It’s just that it’s just not getting done.”

There is a constant late-night crowd in Old Town, Rundt said, so Old Town should have a dedicated police unit. Instead, the city pulls in officers from all across the city, including special units like Noll and Schepis, and tries to guess when there will be unusually large crowds.

On March 5, most of the officers who were supposed to be in Old Town were out working two other major shootings.

As the bullets flew, from one block to the next, there wasn’t an officer in sight.

“We were working two shootings before Old Town closed, and we didn’t have resources,” Schepis said. “And (the shooters) saw it. They knew. They didn’t see officers down there at all.”

Capt. Salcido’s office

Wichita’s four police bureaus, like its schools, have literal names: North, South, East and West. As captain of the South bureau, Jose Salcido doesn’t have to deal with gangs very much, he said: The source of most crime in the South is drugs.

Salcido pulled up maps on his computer to illustrate his point. He pointed to a red spot on a map of south Wichita, a crime hotspot. His officers had traced a handful of recent robberies to a drug house.

But even when he knows where the problem is, that doesn’t mean he can crack down right away. The police could put 20 men on that house and shut it down, but that doesn’t make sense, Salcido said.

He has earned two master’s degrees, one in business administration, and said he looks at the South bureau like a business. Putting 20 officers on one drug house would not be an efficient use of resources, he said.

Salcido sees crime in Old Town as part of a whole system. He has to think about how to tackle each area and spike in crime, but also how putting resources in one area will affect the ability to police other areas.

Salcido is looking for patterns that can help him deploy resources more strategically.

A few weeks ago Salcido noticed that several car thefts had taken place between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. and more than half had taken place in the same five-block area. Criminals, like most people, tend to work where they are comfortable, he said.

Salcido told two officers in civilian clothes to go to those specific locations during specific hours. “I think our auto larceny guys will return Saturday night,” he wrote to his officers. “It will most likely be an individual with a backpack and a flashlight. ;)”

This kind of targeted, data-driven policing works in tandem with community policing. Policies like “Stop and Frisk” rely on a scattershot approach in high-crime areas. This can anger the community and will, in the long run, make it harder for police to build trust with informants that will help them solve bigger crimes, Salcido said.

But to put his full attention to this kind of work, Salcido had another issue to keep in mind: At the top of his white board, in a box labeled “highest priority,” were the words “Old Town.”

Slow night

“You seeing anything?” Schepis asked, a little past 9 p.m.

They had left the drug house and had gotten the license plate number of a car there, but nothing had turned up. So they began circling Wichita.

“I am not,” Noll responded.

For much of the night, Schepis teased Noll about his small bladder. Noll ribbed Schepis back about his driving. Then they would see something suspicious, drive by, slow down and resume their patrol.

“We gotta get something going or I’m going to fall asleep,” Schepis said, as they drove on. “It’s kind of a quiet night for being Saturday.”

A few minutes later, they received word that shots had been fired in a mobile home park and that they needed to enter a home to make sure no one was hurt.

“We’re doing a welfare check,” an officer shouted at the door when they arrived. “Come to the door, or we’re kicking it open.”

Several officers stood behind Noll and Schepis as they entered.

“Wichita police coming in,” they shouted again before ramming the door. Schepis led with a shield and Noll, following right behind, dangled his gun over the top.

There was hot food on the table, so the shooters must have left in a hurry, they said. The working assumption was that someone had fired a gun into the air. Then someone spotted a bullet hole in a window. The officers crowded around.

Schepis placed his flashlight against the bullet hole and pointed it across the street, while Noll went looking to see where it might have hit.

Before they could make much headway, a few minutes later they were back in their car: A dispatcher announced that two people had been cut at a nearby apartment complex.

When they arrived, several EMS staffers were pumping on the chest of a woman who had been stabbed in the neck. A minute later, the emergency crew had stopped pumping and rolled her into an ambulance.

The woman’s sister, who had been stabbed in the arm, lay on a gurney screaming, while onlookers in pajamas and tank tops watched: “Where is my twin? I want to see my twin right now.”

Schepis started moving onlookers away from the scene and putting up crime scene tape.

The bars in Old Town would close in a little over two hours, and it looked increasingly unlikely that Noll and Schepis would be there to help out.

Perception vs. reality, Part 1

In the aftermath of the March 5 shooting, both the mayor and the new police chief said people should feel safe going to Old Town because crime had fallen since 2012.

The data only partly supports this. While most types of crimes have fallen since 2012, not all have.

2011 and 2012 were particularly bad years for crime in Old Town. Most serious crimes are at the same level that they were from 2004 to 2010. The current crime rate only appears unusually low when compared with the bad years of 2011 and 2012.

Overall crime in Old Town is about the same today as it has been since 2004.

But the data doesn’t tell the full story.

From 2014 to March 2016, for example, the Pumphouse, one popular Old Town club, reported 20 fights to police, one of the highest rates in Old Town. But that’s because the Pumphouse was doing a good job at managing its crowds, according to Capt. Salcido. Anytime there was an incident, Salcido said, the Pumphouse let the police know about it before it escalated.

The data appears to suggest the Pumphouse had a problem, but Salcido said it really shows that a problem was being addressed.

Switching roles

About 15 minutes after Schepis and Noll arrived at the stabbing scene, Schepis got down on one knee to talk to the 8-year-old daughter of Seth Collins, the man whom police had put in handcuffs. Collins would later be charged with second-degree murder, accused of stabbing Kayla Brown in the neck in a dispute that started over a parking spot.

Schepis asked the girl what happened. “Where were you riding in the car? Were you in the front seat or back seat?” Schepis asked. “Or were you driving?”

The girl, who had only minutes earlier been crying into the stomach of her mom, now giggled.

Schepis gave the girl his flashlight and told her to point to the spot where she saw fighting. He also helped her find little-kid ways of describing age and how much time had passed.

It was nearly midnight by the time Schepis and Noll left the scene for a “pow wow” downtown. Each officer had to explain what he had seen and heard from witnesses, so that a search warrant for Collins’ apartment could be drawn up.

But even as they headed downtown, calls were going out on the radio for extra officers to head to Old Town at bar closing.

History repeated

In 1994, three women were accosted in an alley in Old Town, their purses stolen and gunshots fired.

At that point, three of its current restaurants, Heroes, Larkspur and River City Brewery, had recently opened, and the others on the street had Wild West names: Cowboy Club and Rowdy Joe’s Steakhouse and Saloon.

The problem then, police said, was not too many people in Old Town but too few: If there had been more people, the thought was, the criminals wouldn’t have been emboldened to snatch their purses.

One recommendation was to improve the lighting in Old Town. This recommendation has been made every few years after the latest violent incident. Some other recent recommendations – trimming trees, putting up cameras and adding more regular officers – are based on the same principle: The best way to prevent crime is to make people feel they are being watched.

But if more officers are in Old Town, they can’t answer the next 911 call.

Without a dedicated weekend night force in Old Town, the challenge is trying to predict when problems might arise. On March 5, police didn’t have all the information.

Part of what made the shootings difficult to predict is that Pandora, the biggest club in Old Town, had rented out its space to a private group. According to Van Sickle, the Old Town Association president, Pandora has now agreed to require private groups to provide more security.

The supervising officer always has to have an eye on Old Town, Salcido said, especially on Saturdays in the summer. Last August when the South bureau was dealing with a major homicide, Salcido said, he called officers at home while they were sleeping and told them to get to Old Town.

But that didn’t happen in March during the latest shooting. Salcido said that shooting was more of an anomaly: Friday nights in March should not, compared with a Saturday in July, require the same amount of resources.

Closing time

When Schepis and Noll finally broke away from work on the latest homicide, it was already past 1 a.m. and calls were still going out for any available units to head to Old Town.

Then a call went out about a cutting at Wal-Mart. “Right now it’s going to be hard to get officers to go to that,” Schepis said.

He thinks a consistent presence in Old Town would make a difference in moments like these, but he also said he doesn’t want to appear whiny.

Right now things are looking up in the Police Department, a number of officers said. For the first time in a long time, Noll said, he feels like his voice is being listened to. The new police chief, Gordon Ramsay, has emphasized that he wants to hear people’s ideas. Before, he said, it felt like nothing would happen.

But they said the chief has also told them that even some good ideas may not be able to happen if they cost more. So one strategy in Old Town could be a centralized traffic unit, which doesn’t have 911 duties and would have more flexibility to come regularly to Old Town.

But one of the best solutions, several officers said, would be to create a separate bureau for the center of the city. Wichita continues to expand outward, especially west and east, which puts pressure on those bureaus, they said.

“The city continues to expand, and our four-bureau and four-station concept is stretched too thin,” Sgt. Rundt said. “So they’ve always known they need a central fifth bureau.”

They said they are looking forward to hearing the results of a new study the department commissioned that will recommend an optimal level of police presence. If the study shows that the department is understaffed, it could create pressure on the city to provide more resources.

When they arrived in Old Town, Schepis and Noll were told to head to Revolution Lounge, a club where predominantly Latino and black millennials were starting to trickle out. They watched across the street as women in high heels stumbled past and wafts of smoke floated by. Two other officers, circling on foot, passed by.

When the club finally let out, a crowd formed at the bottom of the stairs at the entrance to the club. “Let’s go, guys, it’s time to go,” they shouted as they moved in. Few people moved, and it was hard to even hear their shouts.

One patron gave them the finger, but it was better than some nights, they said, when some club-goers have cursed at them aggressively and refused to move. Most were friendly, they said, and one young club-goer came up to them and told them he wanted to be an officer.

“I hope you make it,” Noll told him. “Good luck.”

Perception vs. reality, Part 2

Before the most recent Old Town shooting, according to several officers, two clubs were responsible for most of the unsafe atmosphere downtown: Pandora and Indigo Lounge.

But a map of violent crime since 2014 doesn’t show this. Pandora and Indigo Lounge don’t appear to be any less safe than other night spots in Old Town. What was unique about those clubs, according to the owner of Indigo Lounge at the time, was that those are two of the only spots that cater to minorities.

This was not the first time race has come up when the city has tried to clamp down on Old Town crime. In 2012 the police blamed a shooting on loitering outside Doc Howard’s, a now defunct club that also catered to minorities. Some residents complained that the city was creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for minorities.

According to Van Sickle, the main issue with Doc Howard’s was not the type of music it was playing but its huge size. So many people would loiter outside the club, which had a capacity of around 2,000, according to police, that other people would show up even after it closed to join the crowd. The city pursued a no-loitering ordinance, and in 2012 the owner divided the building into several separate businesses.

Crime has fallen in Old Town since then.

Salcido, who took over the South bureau in 2013, took some of the blame for the recent misperception that police were out to get minority clubs. He has worked in clubs that cater to minorities, he said, and knows that they can be well run. But he didn’t do enough to engage with the clubs, he said, and help them.

The message that the problem is not about race hasn’t always gotten through.

Final sweep

Three officers on horseback, who had been approved for overtime by Chief Ramsay, moved into the crowd in front of Revolution Lounge with Schepis and Noll. People moved out of the way of the horses, and the crowd dispersed.

Every Uber car was booked for the night, and a long line of them had formed in the street.

Although police blocked off a small portion of the street in front of Indigo Lounge, they can’t block off the whole area, like police do in the nightlife areas in Kansas City and Oklahoma City, Schepis said. That’s because the parking lots in Old Town are right in the middle, and people would have nowhere to park and no way to leave.

A drunken reveler tried to pick up something that he’d dropped in the road on Washington, causing cars to slow down and honk. Fights and even shootings will break out over petty grievances like these, Noll said.

Some of the officers that other bureaus send to Old Town don’t have much experience dealing with crowds, according to Sgt. Rundt, and some can actually escalate problems unnecessarily.

After the crowds had dispersed, the officers in Old Town huddled together. All the other officers there were either overtime positions or from a different bureau, they said.

As Noll and Schepis strolled back to their vehicle, they saw someone urinating in a parking garage. More of these small crimes would be prevented, they said, with a continual police presence.

When the man turned around, they recognized him from earlier.

“You can’t pee in public,” Schepis shouted across the parking lot, “if you want to be a policeman.”