‘So many things could have gone wrong,’ mom says
A Lawrence mother is concerned after learning that a police officer was looking for an allegedly armed suspect in the East Lawrence Rec Center while her two kids and a few dozen others were at a summer camp there last week.
The mom was already on high alert after Lawrence police had temporarily closed streets in the area of 16th Street and Haskell Avenue. The road closure, the department explained in a Facebook post, was for officers to serve a search warrant “related to a robbery and kidnapping investigation.”
A couple hours later, an officer came into the rec center’s gym looking for a suspect, the mom said. With a heightened sense of concern and protectiveness following recent national tragedies, more red flags went up.
Camp staff didn’t speak to the officer while he was there, nor did the officer notify them of what was going on, she said. But she spoke to him, and he described the man he was looking for.
She later learned that the man the officer sought — possibly inside the rec center, where about three dozen children were campers in a city-run program — was allegedly armed.
“So many things could have gone wrong … and luckily, nothing did. I couldn’t have done a single thing.”
“… This staff is amazing, and they would have done anything — but they didn’t have the information they needed to protect our kids,” said the mom, who asked not to be named in this article.
Fortunately, this incident did not become a parent’s worst nightmare. But the mom said it was enough to cause her to start asking questions of Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department staff, and she believed they had begun taking action to get some sort of notification system in place.
“They’re not sure why a policy is not in place, why a protocol is not in place,” she said. “I was livid. And I said, ‘So we’re going to wait till another Uvalde or another Columbine happens, and then we’re going to do something?’”
Major Trent McKinley of the Lawrence Police Department said via email that officers had been called after an argument in the area across the street from the home where the search warrant was executed Thursday morning.
“As it pertains to the search warrant call, our arrests were made at the property and did not present safety issues to the larger neighborhood area,” he said.
“That said, the location of the home being situated at the intersection of 16th and Haskell was less than ideal as it necessitated the closure of Haskell to vehicular traffic during the warrant execution. Once individuals were in custody we moved our vehicles off of Haskell and reopened the roadway.”
The roads were reopened by 9:30 a.m., and the jail’s booking log shows that a resident of the home was booked at 10:39 a.m. and later charged with criminal possession of a weapon. McKinley said officers remained at the scene for hours afterward.
The unrelated argument call came in around 11 a.m.
“The argument stemmed from one subject allegedly stealing the other subject’s ‘vape pen’ earlier. During the argument the victims stated the suspect displayed what appeared to be a handgun, which the victims felt threatened by,” McKinley said.
The man had left on foot, and officers were checking the nearby apartments, park and the area of the East Lawrence Rec Center for him, McKinley said.
The mom said she spoke to the officer in the gym around 11:30.
Officers arrested the man around noon a few blocks away from the rec center. They allegedly found a BB gun in his backpack that was consistent with what was described to them, McKinley said, and he did not attempt to flee or resist arrest. The man was later charged with two counts of aggravated assault.
When public safety is a concern, “(W)e contact surrounding residents, businesses, schools or other venues if they are in proximity to a police incident which may jeopardize their safety,” McKinley said. “The on-scene supervisor and responding officers make those notifications.”
The campers’ mom said she had “raised such a fuss” over the lack of notification about the search for the allegedly armed suspect in the rec center – before or after he was apprehended. “He could have been in there. He could have walked in.”
“We had no reason to believe he would have reason to go to ‘a space where a few dozen kids were at camp’,” McKinley said, quoting the question to which he was responding in his answer. “Had anything indicated the suspect may go to the rec center we would have contacted them and discussed a safety plan, based on the day to day use of that facility.”
A second mom, whose child was at a preschool nearby in the area of 19th and Delaware streets, said she had “mixed emotions” after Thursday’s incidents.
She had no idea what was going on when she received a text from her child’s teacher at 8:36 that morning. The school was initiating a lockdown because police had Haskell Avenue blocked from 15th Street to 19th Street.
“‘We do not know the reason. We are in lockdown and will let you know when you can enter,’” she read from the text message.
“I responded with the ‘eyeballs wide open’ emoji,” she said, “because it’s not something you necessarily expect to hear or read.”
The mom, who also asked not to be named, said she later learned from the teacher that the school only knew anything was going on because another parent had called saying that they couldn’t get to the building to drop off their child.
She said the school does a great job keeping the kids engaged, so she doesn’t know that they even noticed what was going on. But she had concerns about transparency and what she perceives as a disconnect between the public and the police department.
“I feel like we know things so far past when it actually happens that it’s not useful information anymore,” she said.
Police wrote in a social media post Thursday that for the safety of officers, the public and suspects or those involved, they strategically time informational releases. They cannot alert the subject of a search warrant in advance.
The preschool mom said she understood that.
“But at the same time … in this day and age of technology, there has to be a way that they can let surrounding businesses and schools and camps or whatever — particularly with children — know that something’s going to be happening,” she said. “Whether they give details or not. ‘Something is going to be happening and you should probably be prepared to (take safety precautions) sometime during this timeframe.’”
We asked McKinley if it would be possible to just notify private schools or camps when there are plans for a warrant execution like Thursday’s, either beforehand or as it’s happening.
“Those whom are the subjects of the warrant could be alerted to flee, dispose of evidence or barricade themselves within a location. Similar concerns could arise for the ‘as it’s happening’ scenario, especially if that information went out before the individuals at the search warrant location were secured,” McKinley said. “In this particular incident I did call one of our (public information officers) from the scene during the warrant service call, to ask they put something out on social media, but only after the last remaining individual was secured and it was verified there were no remaining individuals inside the house.”
In response to follow-up questions, McKinley added that “although street closures and a police presence of this nature were concerning and inconvenient for some, several of our officers (myself and Laura McCabe included) were contacted by those in the area and thanked for the actions taken that morning. Some referenced problems at that location which were beyond the underlying nature of the robbery/kidnapping warrant at hand, but it was clear the activities at this home were of great concern to individuals in the neighborhood. Hopefully you have, or will have, included their perspectives as well.”
The campers’ mom had made a similar comment. “People in the neighborhood weren’t very happy when whoever moved in there took over” because of the current condition of the property, she said.
Speaking about the incident on Friday, it was unclear to the campers’ mom whether the two incidents were separate or connected because of the extended police presence in the area. But she, too, had concerns about the planned execution of the search warrant.
“You went in with a SWAT team, armed. You obviously thought they were dangerous,” she said. “You didn’t think a city-run Parks and Rec camp of vulnerable children that is a block away should be notified?”
“… Even if they didn’t feel it necessary to do a lockdown — which they should have — they could have at least alerted staff that this was gonna go on somewhere in the area, … and maybe just keep a better eye on the door or something,” she said.
The rec center is a community building where people are coming and going all the time, she said, and an armed suspect easily could have hid from police there.
Porter Arneill, a spokesperson for the city, responded to multiple questions sent via email to him and Derek Rogers, director of the Parks and Recreation department: “Staff responded to the parents and others who reached out for more information. LKPD, LPRD and my office are discussing ways to communicate safety concerns in the event of similar situations in the future.”
The campers’ mom said Wednesday that she hadn’t heard any updates from the city since last week.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.