Last month a bystander was shot and killed at Swope Park, resurrecting the debate over safety at the Loop.

Loop Road remains a place of controversy 

Last month a bystander was shot and killed at Swope Park, resurrecting the debate over safety at the Loop.

Having fun at a park should not cause grief, but the Loop Road in Swope Park has caused plenty.

Twenty-nine-year-old Freddie L. Heard died at the Loop on April 9. According to the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, Heard was a bystander to an act of violence. But the incident has set off, once again, a major debate about the area's safety and behavior of the crowds there.

On Sunday, April 9, the usually festive atmosphere at the park turned dark. Heard had gone to the Loop with a friend. As they were leaving, a fight started between a man and woman. The commotion caused the traffic to stall. Heard jumped out of a 1995 Cadillac to watch the fight. A few minutes later, shots were fired and Heard hit the ground, bleeding.

He was pronounced dead at the scene (63rd and Lewis Road) -- another black-on-black crime statistic, the result of a handgun. Heard's death was the sort of senseless and random violence that has been associated with the large crowds that gather at the Loop every spring and summer.

It was not an extremely warm day. The temperature was in the mid-60s, not exactly inviting weather for outside activities. But people came to the Loop. At the time of the shooting, police were present. However, normal police patrol of the area was not to begin until the following week.

"The crowds Sunday were unusually large for this time of year. Usually, the crowds do not swell to several thousand until May. That's why police officers were not assigned to the park on Sunday," said Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) Maj. Darryl Forte in a Star article about the Heard shooting.

Police initially had few leads in the shooting death, though it took place in front of hundreds of people. Many potential witnesses immediately left the park after hearing gunfire. The biggest challenge the police faced was getting witnesses to talk on the record. In the black community there is a code of silence, a long tradition stemming from mistrust that prevents police from solving many crimes quickly.

Detectives who arrived on the scene after the shooting wrote down the license numbers of cars that remained in the park after the shooting. They attempted to contact and interview witnesses but needed the assistance of city Councilman Al Brooks, also a consultant for the Move Up organization (a merger between the Ad-Hoc Group Against Crime and Project Neighborhood).

Brooks' intervention helped lead to the arrest of 19-year-old Jamaal Robinson. Brooks was able to obtain information needed for the investigation because of his regular one-minute broadcasts on KPRS 103.3 FM. His messages of advocacy ask listeners for tips to help solve certain crimes in the community. Brooks says a reward was eventually given for the information in the Heard crime.

According to police statements, Robinson and his ex-girlfriend had a fight at the Loop. Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at the ex-girlfriend as she was walking away. The stray bullet struck Heard in his left side, piercing his heart and lungs.

The shooting has not altered patrol plans for the summer, says Sgt. Mark Heimer, who is part of the tactical response team that patrols the park on Sunday. But concerns about the Loop remain. Hundreds of young adults and teenagers congregate there on Sunday afternoons to hang out and cruise. It is a ritualistic celebration where members of a mostly African-American crowd display the latest in urban fashion, listen to rap music, show off their cars, and socialize.

There have been crackdowns on underage drinking and marijuana use at the Loop, and violent activity has declined. But a neighborhood group near Swope Park doesn't hold that opinion; residents have a different version of Loop activity. The Swope Ridge neighborhood is about a mile from the Loop and is bounded by 63rd Street and Gregory on the north and south and I-435 and Swope Parkway on the east and west.

Several members of the Swope Ridge Neighborhood Association have complained bitterly about the crowds for several years. Their complaints have been directed at 5th District city councilmembers Kelvin Simmons and Becky Nace. Residents say they feel like prisoners in their own homes on Sundays. They complain that because of the unruly crowds of young adults, they can't have company, hold barbecues, or allow their children to play in the yard. The residents perceive the crowd to be dangerous and are fearful of the crowd's actions. Several residents claim they have been assaulted or threatened. They say their property has been destroyed and people have urinated and littered on their lawns. Drag racing and loud music is common, says one resident, so much so that the vibrations from the noise shattered her china. Traffic congestion is another complaint. Loop patrons supposedly use 67th Street as a Loop entrance and exit.

The 3/4-mile-long Loop road opened in 1997 at a cost of $480,000. The Loop -- so named by city officials -- replaced a section of Swope Park formerly known as the Circle, which was demolished when the zoo expanded in the mid-'90s. The area has traditionally been an African-American gathering place on Sunday afternoons ever since Kansas City's version of Jim Crow laws were wiped out in the mid-'60s. Segregation laws had previously limited African-Americans' access to only certain sections of Swope Park.

Hanging out at Loop Road has become a rite of passage, especially for young people. But in the past 10 years, the area has been heavily scrutinized as elements of the drug and hip-hop cultures became more prominent. Minors have periodically been caught with alcohol, and patrons have been arrested for possession of marijuana. Young women often expose their breasts, and concealed weapons have been confiscated. Yet the area has remained relatively problem-free and the KCPD admits that the April murder was a rare occurrence. In general, the police describe the atmosphere as being controlled by the KCPD.

"Part of (nearby residents') complaint is that there are young kids driving through and they don't want young people doing that," says former KCPD Deputy Chief James Nunn, now executive director of Move Up. "The kids are not that out of control. At one point I believed that they were, until I started observing their actions every Sunday. At times some young person has done something stupid like urinate in someone's yard, but most are obedient." Nunn says he spent every Sunday from 1997 to 1999 observing the activities at the Loop.

Some members of the Swope Ridge Neighborhood Association state that they have no problem with the crowds' hanging in the park but do not want the park traffic in their neighborhood.

"The neighborhood people were very upset," says Nace, who received phone calls and e-mails on a daily basis last year. "Every Monday I would get a report from the neighborhood group on what happened on Sunday." Although Nace's office said that it regularly received complaints from the neighborhood association, her office has never been given any formal complaints in writing.

Records fail to show that any residents have filed assault charges or property damage reports with the police department. Swope Ridge residents would not go on the record for this story to explain the alleged activities they witness, for fear they would be retaliated against by people who attend the park on Sundays.

"I want to be fair to both sides," says Nunn. "I hate that they are being disturbed, but their accounts of what is going on have been exaggerated."

According to Simmons, the situation is difficult to solve because there are two competing interests: a neighborhood group that wants to eliminate the activity, and the people who will continue to gather at the park on Sundays during the spring and summer. Attendance is dependent upon the weather. If the weather is nice, the crowds can be as large as a couple thousand people.

Traffic is a concern on the south end of the park. The KCPD traffic unit has designed a new plan to try to get traffic routed back out onto 63rd Street instead of having it leave through the back onto 67th Street.

"The residents have convinced at least one councilmember that 67th Street should be closed and young people shouldn't be allowed down that street. I'm opposed to that," says Nunn. "The reason I say that is because that street is not private. There is no reason to close 67th Street and prevent people from getting to the back side of the park if you choose to go there."

"We are trying to minimize any type of unusual impact the cars would have on the community and neighborhood. Access will be completely closed off," says Heimer, of the KCPD. The plan, initiated by Nace, has not been tested because there hasn't been a large enough crowd to create serious traffic congestion since the plan went into effect on April 16. Putting the new plan in place is a victory for Nace, who made the problems at the Loop her cause célèbre during her election campaign last year. The councilwoman has held several meetings about the activities at the park. "The perception was less people were coming to the park, according to Deputy Nunn," says Nace. "His perception was that there was not a real problem."

"Last year the numbers of young people that were frequenting the park were down -- and down greatly," says Nunn. "Some of the young people stated to me they couldn't enjoy themselves because of the police presence. Therefore, they didn't come to the park. If you want to disturb other individuals or break the law then the park isn't the place to come."

Over the past three years the crowds have slowly dissipated. The Loop is not as popular as it was several years ago. "A lot of people do not come out here because they know the cops are here," says a teenager attending the park on a recent Sunday. "If you know you have a warrant or like to smoke weed and drink, you are going to stay away because you are going to get busted, and a lot of people know that and just don't come like they used to."

Nunn's theory on law and order remains the same as when he was on the police force: Enforce the law without interfering with the park patrons' right to have a good time within the law. "Our goal was to create a safe environment for people who wanted to come to the park and hang out," he says.

Nace's target, in response to citizens' complaints, was the entertainment the Parks and Recreation Department provided at the Loop beginning in 1997. The entertainment component consisted primarily of local amateur talent -- singers, rappers, and poets. An annual Miss Loop pageant and car show was also held once a year.

Nace, criticized by some who charge that she has not visited the Loop on a regular basis, says the extra crowd flow at the park came from the entertainment's being offered. The crowds, she says, grow beyond capacity (1,000 parked or moving cars), causing traffic to spill over into the Swope Ridge neighborhood. The KCPD insists that numbers are down at the Loop and that the entertainment did not draw extra patrons to the park. Nace disagrees, saying, "The entertainment swelled the crowd from 1,000 to 4,000." She suggests using Blue Valley Park or Liberty Memorial Park as alternate sites for entertainment and youth-related activities on Sundays.

Apparently, Nace convinced fellow councilmembers of her argument about entertainment at the Loop. In April, the city council approved a cut of $40,000 from the budget, money earmarked to provide additional bathroom facilities and concession stands in the Loop area.

The idea to transplant the Loop crowds has been tried before and has failed. Former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver suggested using an abandoned drive-in theater a mile east of the Loop as an alternative gathering site in 1996. Crowds stayed away and the idea was discarded the following year. In 1998, Parks and Recreation provided entertainment at the Loop and Blue Valley Park. "We attempted to do another program at another site and it wasn't as heavily attended as Swope Park," says Mark Bowland, the department's recreational superintendent. "We didn't get the numbers we wanted (at Blue Valley), but we didn't really publicize the second location. We hoped it would be a natural migration, but it didn't catch on, so we didn't do it in '99."

"Going to the Loop is a ritual," says Simmons. "The people are going to be there regardless of whether Parks and Recreation is there providing entertainment or not. But putting something positive and constructive in place helps keep the situation under better control."

The car show particularly attracts a large crowd at the Loop. "The annual car show, produced by One Way Automotive, is a very popular event and did attract close to 5,000 people," says Bowland. "It's held every year in August as a wrap-up for the summer."

There also has been concern about the number of patrons who come from Kansas. "When Wyandotte County cracked down on the activity at their park, we received the spillover. Twenty-five percent of the people at the Loop are from Wyandotte County," says Nace. That crackdown took place in the mid-'80s. Wyandotte County Lake had similar hanging-out and cruising problems but on a much smaller scale. Crowds as large as a thousand people would hang out in a parking lot in the picnic area.

"Our problem had to do with drinking in public, and the park board allowed the administrator to establish certain areas of the park where alcohol would not be allowed," says Mike Connor, director of Parks and Recreation for the Unified Government. "After we posted the signs the crowds dropped to a manageable level. The kids were just here to drink and raise hell. They were not here to enjoy the park, so when we cut out the drinking, they had no reason to be seen or heard anymore."

The measures Wyandotte County officials took will not necessarily work at the Loop. Alcohol is not allowed in any Kansas City park, and the police attempt to enforce the rule. But the Loop has more appeal than Wyandotte County Lake's smaller parking lot, and the crowd's sole purpose for hanging out is not just drinking.

"The Loop is something that everyone in the metropolitan area comes to," says Simmons. "People have to understand that people from Wyandotte County, Blue Springs, Lee's Summit, Independence, and Overland Park all come to the Loop. It isn't just residents of Kansas City hanging out, it's everyone."

"The majority of the weekends go very smoothly. Ninety-nine percent of the people are out there trying to enjoy themselves on a Sunday," says Heimer. "We have developed a really good working relationship with the people who participated in the park activities the last couple of years. Our interaction has been very positive."

While residents voice their concerns about littering, loud music and congestion, officials from the park's biggest tenants, Starlight Theatre and the zoo, both located within a half-mile of the Loop, have not complained about the Sunday afternoon crowds. "There is probably more of a problem going on at Westport than at the Loop," says Simmons.

Although the crowds have been smaller than usual the past couple of summers, that doesn't mean they won't swell this summer. "The crowd size varies," says Bowland. "You can not project what the attendance will be; you just have to be prepared. The crowds are going to continue to gather at the Loop. There is just no way to gauge how many."

The KCPD is prepared, say police officials, and will have the area under control when officers are present. "I want the blue at the park so people won't act stupid and I accidentally get smoked (killed)," says a young lady who didn't want to be identified. "I don't want to die like that guy the other Sunday."

Contact Shawn Edwards at 816-218-6778 or shawn.edwards@pitch.com.

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