Is crime actually rising on the Country Club Plaza? Here’s what the numbers tell us
Businesses and shoppers express worries about personal safety and rising crime on the Plaza, but the numbers show that the largest issues revolve around cars. However, shopping district's enduring legacy of racism tends to heavily influence the discussion.
A small white pickup, its sides marked “SECURITY” in bold lettering, creeps up the incline of a parking garage at the east end of the Country Club Plaza.
Once inside, the truck will circle, a visible presence countering the top crime threat that people experience on the Plaza — car theft, either of the vehicle or items taken from cars.
At the other end of the Plaza, near where the Cinemark Palace movie theater and a McDonald’s once drew crowds of teenagers, an unmarked police car sits idling in the street.
The Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) car’s stationary presence is a common sight in the iconic shopping district.
This was the scene on a recent Saturday evening. But the same routine, KCPD supplementing the Plaza’s private security, can be seen during the week.
Speak for long with almost any Kansas Citian about the Plaza and perspectives of personal safety and crime will arise.
They’re not always accurate.
Cars are involved in a sizable portion of crime in the area, according to publicly accessible data compiled by the KCPD and analyzed by Kansas City PBS/Flatland.
So far in 2023, about 14% of offenses reported to KCPD involved theft from autos. Nearly 20% of offenses reported were related to stolen autos.
“When people’s minds think crime and the Plaza, they think young and Black,” said Chris Goode, owner and CEO of Ruby Jean’s Juicery and a former commissioner of the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation. “There’s a big opportunity for the city to change that.”
Conversations about the Plaza are buzzing as the shopping district celebrates its 100th anniversary and a deal to cement a change in ownership is being finalized.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has repeatedly called the Plaza “the crown jewel” of the metropolitan area, noting its success is linked to the thriving nature of many nearby businesses and neighborhoods, both in Missouri and Kansas due to the proximity of the state line.
The mayor has been in discussions with the Dallas-based investment group that’s currently performing due diligence on potentially buying the Plaza, a deal that is expected to close by the end of the year.
Concerns about public safety have been a part of those discussions, Lucas said recently.
“How do you have pedestrian activity largely throughout the day and night to make sure that people can feel safe from the hustle and bustle around them?” Lucas said last week on Up To Date, a weekday morning talk show broadcast on KCUR 89.3, a member of the KC Media Collective.
Ensuring that garages are secured and lit is a concern mentioned by Lucas.
And he consistently points out a fact that’s backed by police data.
The Plaza “is comparatively safer than many other spots of the city,” Lucas said.
Still, past incidents and history heavily influence current perceptions.
Allegations of racism have long been entwined with the Plaza.
In decades past, Black shoppers were not welcomed. Many believed they were followed by store security. More recent incidents have involved Black youth, including a few with gunfire.
Most officials, even those who decry some teens’ behavior, emphasize that most young people are simply looking for a safe place to hang out with their peers.
Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, is among the officials who make that point.
Grant said that her family had a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the Plaza at Plaza III, The Steakhouse. But she’s long emphasized that a lack of Black-owned businesses there is troubling and contributes to an unwelcoming atmosphere, something she hopes can change with new ownership.
Other common complaints, often posted to social media, are about aggressive panhandlers, which might be linked to an increase in homeless people citywide. Many homeless people struggle with mental health issues and addictions, exacerbated by the pandemic.
Women tend to note a sense of discomfort in parking garages, especially stairwells, and at night.
The latest Plaza crime incident to make local news occurred in early November.
Thieves pointed a gun at a woman after she tried to take a smartphone picture of two women, mid-robbery, carting handfuls of clothing still on the hangers out of Moosejaw, as reported by FOX4.
No shots were fired. But the good Samaritan bystander/photographer had her car rammed by the other women’s car.
The investigation is ongoing, according to Capt. Corey Carlisle of the Kansas City police.
Anyone worried about gun violence in shopping districts might note that both Independence Center and Oak Park Mall had incidents of gunfire last weekend.
No one was injured at Oak Park. A 19-year-old man has been charged with four felonies in that incident.
But a pregnant woman is on life support after being shot in the head during the Independence incident, which also harmed three other people. A 21-year-old man has been charged with six felonies.
A longtime employee of Hall’s, which once operated a store on the Plaza, said that staff have seen customers with guns, sometimes spotted when they go into a dressing room to try on clothes. Those customers, when Hall’s was on the Plaza and at its present location in Crown Center, were told that weapons aren’t allowed.
“Many people carry guns because they don’t feel safe,” the employee said. “But it’s everywhere, not simply on The Plaza.”
Indeed, if you want to stay safe on the Plaza, the biggest tip might be to not drive there.
And yes, that is ironic given that developer Jesse Clyde “J.C.” Nichols’ vision for the 30-acre outdoor shopping district was to make it car-centric with plentiful free parking.
But 100 years after Nichols first brought his concept to fruition, many feel the Plaza is ripe for fresh ideas about how it will continue to be an important part of the community.
“I think it’s important that any conversation that’s had is one that really has a collective voice at the table,” Goode said.
Like other civic leaders, Goode also points out that the city owns adjacent property, like the tennis courts to the east and areas along Brush Creek. Better usage of such land is necessary to connect with the Plaza.
Goode speaks of how the “twinkle” and “luster” of the shopping district, especially during the holidays, are a natural draw to every Kansas City area resident, regardless of where they live in the region.
Making it a welcoming place for all, something he believes that many well-intentioned people would like to help create, is possible.
“But there’s an obligation that our city needs to take because it is part of that messaging,” he said.
Cars, cars, cars
The concept of making the Plaza more pedestrian-friendly has gotten some support lately.
Expanding the streetcar line south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City is part of those discussions.
But for now, how people come to the area before they begin walking is tied to crime.
Stolen autos lead as the top crime reported in the 64112 zip code, which includes the Plaza, during 2023, according to KCPD data.
The information is current as of Nov. 7, 2023.
In total, 332 stolen autos were reported.
Stealing in the form of shoplifting follows (236 incidents) and stealing from autos (230 incidents) was third.
Assaults (non-aggravated) were far further down the list, as the ninth most-reported crime for the zip code, which includes nearby neighborhoods. There were 41 of those incidents. Non-aggravated assaults are defined as when there is no injury or only a very minor one to an individual.
This isn’t surprising to members of law enforcement, who note that other area malls and entertainment districts like Westport and the Power & Light District downtown also have high numbers of auto thefts and break-ins of cars.
The same could be said of Zona Rosa or the Legends Outlets, police said.
The sheer volume of cars that traverse the Plaza each day makes it a target for such crimes. And especially on busier weekends like the warm autumn days Kansas City is currently enjoying, which brings out the crowds.
Crowds bring cars. People leave them unlocked. Or they leave with valuable items, a purse or that bag of just-purchased merchandise, too often visible inside the car.
Thieves also know that people leave guns in cars, prohibited from carrying them into many bars and restaurants.
Anthony Ell retired from the Kansas City Police Department in 2015 as a major, after 31 years.
His godson recently went to Westport and had his car window broken, but nothing was stolen.
“In the areas like Westport and the Plaza, if they break a window, they’re looking for whatever they can find,” Ell said. “And a lot of times, they find unsecured guns, especially outside of bars.”
That might be one reason why the rates of crime can be higher in other entertainment districts that feature more bars, rather than the Plaza, he said.
One woman, who declined to give her name out of embarrassment, said that she was recently advised not to leave her Mercedes coupe overnight on the Plaza.
Plaza security offered her the warning.
She’d had a few cocktails at one of the restaurants and thought it best not to drive.
“They said that people had been breaking windows to get into cars, and I’d better not leave it overnight,” the woman said.
Other forms of security on the Plaza have almost become part of the landscape.
A uniformed KCPD officer sits on a stool just inside the Apple store, one of several that are hired off duty for extra security.
Another such officer walks with employees of Tivol, an exclusive jewelry store, at closing, with everyone exiting at once.
And at the Forever 21 store, the east doors that face Mill Creek Parkway are blocked, marked with red signs warning “Emergency Exit Only, Alarm Will Sound.”
Stain of racism
In recent years, the looming shadow of J.C. Nichols’ less lustrous legacy has clouded the current conversation on race.
There is a broader public acknowledgement of Nichols’ use of housing covenants that excluded Black ownership in the portions of the area that he developed.
Nichols has become a simplistic shorthand way to ignore many other major local players — like school boards, other developers, bankers and realtors — who were crucial to implementing the systemic racism that kept Kansas City segregated.
Many of those actions occurred long after segregation and discriminatory practices were outlawed by the courts and federal law.
The board of the parks department removed Nichols’ name from the fountain at Mill Creek Park in 2020, a fountain dedicated by the Nichols family in 1960. The Nichols family foundation still supports the fountain’s upkeep.
Nichols’ name was also taken off the adjacent parkway, which retook its original name of Mill Creek Parkway.
Three events tend to get mentioned when people discuss race, crime and the Plaza.
In 2011, then-Mayor Sly James was shoved to the ground by his security detail as shots were fired near the Cheesecake Factory one summer night.
Three children were shot that night.
At the time, crowds of Black teenagers had begun gathering in nearby Mill Creek Park. Some were as young as 12 and 14 years old, who had been dropped off by their parents, a point that drew the anger of James.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are also noted. For the most part, the rallies were contained to areas on the eastern edge of the Plaza and in Mill Creek Park, except for when a handful of people broke some store Plaza windows.
And for those with long enough memories, even the 1968 riots in Kansas City after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. will be recalled. Six Kansas Citians, all African American, died.
During the riots, most of the damage to the city occurred on the East Side, nowhere near the Plaza even though civic leaders at the time feared that rioting would spread to the shopping district.
All of this is a backdrop, history that colors perceptions of what the Plaza is, who it welcomes and what it can be going forward.
First, Mayor Lucas said, will be getting to know the prospective new owners, who own the Highland Park Village shopping center in Dallas.
Lucas notes that assigning high numbers of Kansas City police to the area, and taking them away from other needs citywide, will not be a solution.
As mayor, Lucas sits on the Board of Police Commissioners.
“When we talk about public-private partnerships, the private side needs to step up first and say, ‘This is what we are looking to do and a security layout,’” Lucas said during the recent conversation on Up To Date.
And then there is the open wound of the “dirt pit” that now exists on the Plaza’s western edge, the spot that was cleared to make way for a Nordstrom store, a deal that did not come to fruition.
A summer beer garden and a staging area for parks and recreation activities have been suggested, at least as temporary options.
Many Plaza supporters are seeking fresh ideas to bring a renewed vibrancy to the entire Plaza district and its surroundings.
“I’m looking for that type of engagement and activity from the new ownership,” Lucas said. “Fortunately, thus far, I think they’ve shown a commitment to do so.”