Cape police want to prevent possible violence downtown

Monday, December 19, 2011

Police cruised downtown Cape Girardeau and watched with a vigilant eye as people walked -- even stumbled -- from bar to bar Saturday night. Occasional flickers of red and blue lights would seep into bars as police responded to infrequent calls of disturbances, quickly dispatching any trouble they saw. Only one arrest was made downtown Saturday, and it was for what police are calling "prohibited acts by yelling."

It was a fairly quiet night downtown -- a night like any other. Bar patrons walked the streets with ease, often stopping to say hello to people they knew.

Regardless of how peaceful Saturday was, police still scoured the area in an effort to prevent something like what happened to Jerry Conrad on Dec. 9.

Conrad, 25, was stabbed to death during an alcohol-fueled altercation on the lawn in front of the Cape Girardeau Common Pleas Courthouse that morning.

What started as a shoving match in Rumors, a bar located at 36 S. Spanish St., escalated to an incident outside involving several men, and eventually to Conrad's death.

Ryan Harkey, 23, of Jackson was in the middle of the altercation and is accused of murdering Conrad. He told police he took out his black, double-bladed folding knife from his pocket to defend himself and was "swinging it wildly." Police allege Harkey struck Conrad in his upper chest, puncturing his pulmonary artery and essentially killing him at the scene.

Harkey told investigators that he carried the knife for self-defense when he went to bars in Cape Girardeau.

"Just in case something happened," he said, noting that Cape Girardeau residents are "crazy."

‘Not every night'

James Layman doesn't seem to think residents are crazy, nor does he feel the need to carry a weapon while downtown.

"Even when there's a festival or something that draws a lot of people downtown, there's no problems," said Layman, a web developer who has lived in Cape for more than four years. "It's just weird that that murder happened here."

Layman said he is downtown at least twice a week and always feels safe when there, although he occasionally notices minor vandalism.

Police deal with bar fights on a case-by-case basis, although they do not happen often, Cape Girardeau Police spokesman Darin Hickey said.

"There are altercations and disturbances in bars downtown -- not every night, but they do happen," Hickey said. "It's a situational response. We will handle it no matter the circumstances, and we have to deal with if it rises."

Identification is checked at a local night spot Saturday in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

According to police reports, only one arrest has been made for any type of violence downtown in the past month, and that arrest was Harkey.

Until Conrad died Dec. 9, there had been only one notable instance of violence at a downtown bar in recent months. In October, three men were arrested in connection with shots being fired at Billiards Center, 26 N. Main St. The shots were fired as part of an altercation, according to police.

Missouri law dictates that any business that sells alcohol cannot be held liable if a patron is injured or dies after getting voluntarily intoxicated at the establishment. The only time a bar -- or, as the law refers to it, a "dram shop" -- can be held liable is when it has served underage customers and the intoxicated customer is injured or dies.

A handful of bars downtown use bouncers as security and throw potential troublemakers out of the bar in an effort to prevent fights, various bartenders said.

Rude Dog co-owner Todd Hennemann said he has not seen a fight in or near his bar in four years, and has been so comfortable in downtown Cape Girardeau that he has allowed his elderly father to watch the door at the bar. Hennemann, who also bartends, said preventing altercations is easy as long as he keeps a vigilant eye on his patrons.

"If I see it, I point it out and extinguish it," Hennemann said of potential fights. "It's hard to rationalize with a drunk, but we manage."

And he does it without a bouncer. Bouncers create more trouble than they actually prevent, Henneman said, noting that another bar he has worked at saw scuffles only when a bouncer was present.

"A guy will hit someone knowing that there's a big guy there to break it up," he said.

Protecting downtown

Liquor is displayed at a local night spot in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

In addition to the occasional fight downtown, businesses in the area have faced vandalism. Broken windows and other property damage are fairly frequent, according to police reports.

In the past month, property has been reported damaged at three businesses downtown.

City officials are looking into installing surveillance cameras to keep an eye on downtown, city manager Scott Meyer said.

"We're looking at different options as far as the Broadway project that involve surveillance cameras," Meyer said.

The city is also looking into installing surveillance cameras on light posts and other locations. When applicable, police and city officials will pull footage from business' private security cameras, Meyer said.

In addition to potential city-funded cameras, some local businessmen have offered to raise money toward erecting cameras downtown to increase safety in the area.

Police patrol downtown frequently to watch for suspicious activity and make arrests when needed. Only a handful of arrests have been made downtown in the past month.

"The police are doing a grand job in protecting downtown," Layman said. "I've always felt safe here."

psullivan@semissourian.com

388-3635

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