The Kansas City branch of the NAACP on Friday voiced its opposition to the Kansas City Council's approval of a plan to privatize Westport sidewalks on weekends and vowed to fight the ordinance before it takes effect this spring.
The council's 8-5 decision earlier this month allowing privatization "amounts to failure to perform public duty," said Rodney Williams, president of the local NAACP and pastor at Swope Parkway United Christian Church.
Seeking to address a dramatic increase in gun violence, a coalition of Westport business owners plan to barricade sidewalks between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekend nights and for special festivals. People will have to pass through metal detectors to enter the entertainment district.
"The resolution hands over public policing with public control to private individuals. Handing off your duty to serve and protect citizens is a bad way for the City Council to do business," Williams said.
"We are opposed to any ordinance that would threaten the basic civil rights of individuals to walk freely in public without being searched," he added. "We believe this ordinance is a measure that is extreme, and places the city on a slippery slope. When private citizens are subject to screening and searches on sidewalks, these policies and practices threaten to erode the basic principles of democracy that we hold so dear."
Besides concerns about privatizing the role of public safety, Williams cited an increased potential for racial profiling.
"Although we do not believe that the Westport community intentionally set out to put forth an ordinance that would bring about racial tension," he said, "that is exactly what this ordinance does."
Citing an NAACP advisory to people of color traveling in Missouri that made headlines earlier this year, Williams said, "The Kansas City branch of NAACP is warning African-American and Latino communities to please be careful when you go into the Westport section of our city. Your civil rights might just be violated."
The ordinance approved by the council requires the Westport Regional Business League to hire civil rights observers to monitor each entrance and report possible violations to the Human rights department. But Williams said he was not confident that such measures would prevent profiling.
"I do not trust private citizens to make decisions concerning training and detaining people," he said. "I think that is a job that belongs to the police department."
Williams called instead for "higher saturation of police officers in Westport during those high-crime hours" and screening devices at the entrances to private businesses rather than public streets.
"Although privatization is much in style these days, it cannot and will not solve the real issues we’re dealing with," he said.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.