Maybe metal detectors at downtown bars would have saved the life of Robert Earl Williams, the man shot and killed last week outside a downtown nightclub.
Or maybe they wouldn't have, but the man's widow told city commissioners Tuesday night that city leaders must figure out what will make the community's nightlife scene safer.
"It has to change. Something has to be done," LaTonia Coleman, Williams' widow, told commissioners. "I returned to a town that I looked at as a place I wanted to raise my family : and now that is all gone."
City commissioners didn't endorse any ideas - including earlier closing times for bars and increased staffing levels for the police department - that came out of a short discussion at their weekly meeting. But they promised Coleman that the issue had their full attention.
"What I'm looking for from the police department and from city management is a specific plan of action," City Commissioner David Schauner said. "Whether it is changing patrols or having a greater police presence in the downtown at closing time, I don't have the answers, but I'm looking for a pretty specific plan."
Commissioners did approve a change in an existing city ordinance that prohibits people from possessing a firearm near a drinking establishment. The change makes it illegal to possess a firearm within 200 feet of any place that serves liquor. The current ordinance didn't specify an exact distance but rather prohibited weapons within "close proximity" to bars.
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That ambiguity has been creating enforcement problems for the police department. Scott Miller, a city attorney, confirmed that police officers have seized six guns in the downtown area since Jan. 1. But he also said police officers have spotted several other guns - fewer than 10, he estimated - in the downtown area but did not seize them because they were uncertain that the guns were in "close proximity" to a bar. In those cases, officers would ask the owner to remove the gun from the area or to properly secure it.
State law makes it illegal for most people to carry a concealed weapon. But without the city ordinance it would be legal, for example, for a person to have a loaded pistol on the seat of a car parked outside a bar because the gun would not be concealed.
Commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance change but said they didn't think it addressed all the concerns related to guns in the downtown area.
"It is going to take a combination of things," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. "I can tell you I don't have all the answers, but we have to make people feel safe in our downtown and any other part of the community."
Some specific ideas on how to improve safety were mentioned Tuesday. Coleman said she would like the city to explore a program that would place metal detectors in bars.
"That way if a gun or knife is present, attention would be called to it immediately," Coleman said.
Linda Day, a Lawrence resident, told commissioners that they needed to investigate whether specific bars were attracting violence. She also suggested they at least consider an earlier closing time for bars because many of the violent acts have happened in the early-morning hours.
"I'm sure most bars wouldn't want to close at midnight, but it is a viable option," Day said.
Commissioners to send letter to Topeka
Topeka visitors are welcome in Lawrence. Lawrence city commissioners want to make that perfectly clear.
City commissioners at their Tuesday meeting agreed to send a letter to the Topeka City Council assuring all Topeka residents that published comments made by a Lawrence bar owner insinuating that Topeka residents were troublemakers were not the general opinion of Lawrence residents. The comments were made in a Journal-World article following the shooting death of a Topeka man last week outside a downtown nightclub.
"Our intent shouldn't be to alienate any of the visitors to downtown," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "I don't think it is right at all to single out individual groups as people we don't want in downtown."
The comments were made by Lawrence bar owner Mike Elwell, who operates Abe & Jake's Landing at Sixth and New Hampshire streets. In a Feb. 7 Journal-World article, Elwell said that on Friday nights he often requires customers have two forms of ID to get in to his bar: one establishing age, and another establishing enrollment at Kansas University or Haskell Indian Nations University. Elwell also said in the article that he thought many of the problems that come to Lawrence drinking establishments "center on Topeka."
"I just want people to understand that is not the community's sentiment," Mayor Boog Highberger said about why he proposed to write a letter to Topeka leaders.
Salvation Army site rezoning delayed
City commissioners Tuesday night delayed for two weeks a rezoning action that could reopen the debate about whether an East Lawrence site is appropriate for a new Salvation Army homeless shelter and service center.
Commissioners unanimously approved the Burroughs Creek Corridor Plan, which recommended several rezonings and the creation of a trail along an abandoned railroad line in the area.
But commissioners delayed the rezoning issue for the Salvation Army site after planning staff members confirmed that changing the zoning from industrial to office uses would require the project to receive a special-use permit, which would require a new vote from city commissioners. The project was controversial when it was approved in 2004 because many neighbors expressed concern that the facility wouldn't mesh well with surrounding homes.
City planners said the Salvation Army wouldn't need a special-use permit if it begins construction on the site - which is near 19th Street and Haskell Avenue - before its site plan expires in May. Salvation Army leaders have said that is unlikely because they are still seeking $2 million in funding for the $3.5 million center.
City to help pay for sports facility study
On a 3-2 vote, commissioners agreed to fund 40 percent of a report that will study the feasibility of a new multisport recreation complex.
City commissioners Mike Amyx and David Schauner voted against the proposal brought forward by the citizens' group Partners for Lawrence Athletics and Youth because they said the city had many other infrastructure projects that needed to be addressed.
The study is expected to cost $50,000 to $70,000. The county, school district and chamber of commerce also have expressed an interest in funding a portion of the study.
Consultant to assist with southeast plan
Commissioners agreed to seek the services of a consultant to help the city and county commissions come to a consensus on the Southeast Area Plan.
The two groups have disagreed on how the area south and east of Kansas Highway 10 and O'Connell Road should develop. The county has advocated for a plan that is more residential in nature, while the city has pushed for a plan that has more of an industrial and office component.
Area plan launched west of trafficway
Commissioners directed staff members to begin working on a new area plan to guide development west of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
The plan is being spurred by the desire of some owners of large amounts of property west of the trafficway to develop within the next decade. City staff members said an area plan would spell out what type of infrastructure and city services would need to be in place before development could occur.