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Archive for November, 2014

The signs are that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson isn’t going to be indicted in the slaying of Michael Brown.

Gov. Jay Nixon and top law enforcement officers are mounting an all-hands-on-deck preparedness plan for when the St. Louis County grand jury returns its verdict, which could be in a matter of days.

It’s a damn shame that Ferguson and the St. Louis area will almost certainly be subjected to more rancor and possible violence. None of it had to happen, and wouldn’t have, if Officer Wilson had only approached Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson in a professional manner on Aug. 9.

“Young men, for your own safety, please get out of the street.”

That’s what Wilson should have said, or something like it. But, no, he was part of Ferguson’s Caucasian Cowboy Patrol and undoubtedly used to barking commands and trying to intimidate young black men.

So, his admonition to Brown and Johnson was, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk!”

Nice start to a citizen-police encounter.

And it ended, as we know, with the cops leaving the young man’s body in a pool of blood for hours while they “investigated” the crime scene.

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In Wilson’s defense, of course, a lot more information about the nature of the encounter has emerged. For example, Brown apparently reached inside the door of the patrol car and grabbed Wilson’s gun. We know from the video of the convenience store robbery minutes earlier that Brown was full of himself — and maybe under the influence — when he roughed up the convenience store owner and marched away triumphantly with a box of cigarillos that he had appropriated.

We can safely assume that Brown was cocky and feeling invincible when Wilson cut loose verbally on him and Johnson.

What ensued was a clash between a high-handed, arrogant young police officer and an agitated member of a racial group that had long been relegated to second-class status in a white-governed city.

Thankfully, because of what unfolded that August day and all that has occurred since, things are changing in Ferguson and maybe other suburban cities like it.

In my first post on this subject, I predicted that Wilson would be charged with voluntary manslaughter and that he would be convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. I do hope, however, that as more of these “cop-shooting-unarmed-people cases” come under closer public scrutiny, political leaders and law enforcement agencies will start asking why law enforcement’s first reaction should be to shoot to kill at the first sign of possible bodily harm.

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Years ago, when I was living on East 56th Street, the cops one day entered a house on the corner of 56th and Main and shot to death a very troubled young man who was standing in the family living room holding a knife. The cops told him to drop the knife; he didn’t; and they shot.

The young man’s mother, who had called police, was outside. The cops came out and, I guess, told her they had shot her son. Instead of getting help, she got a funeral for her son.

I have never gotten over that incident. It was crystal clear to me and the other neighbors that the cops easily could have defused the situation by backing out of the living room. The boy was not between them and the door, and the cops could have called for back-up and simply waited a few minutes. About the worst that could have happened was the kid would have knifed himself. If he’d come running out of the house, toward them, brandishing the knife, then they could have fired away.

But the mindset that day, as well as on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, was confrontation…

“He could hurt me!”

That’s where the thinking has to change…

Yes, he could hurt me, but if I present him with an alternative where no one has to die, maybe he will take it.

Let’s get to talking along those lines.

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Quick follow-up on Sprint…with a parallel story about The Kansas City Star.

It turns out, according to a story posted the kansascity.com website today that Sprint’s workforce reduction this fall will actually come in at about 3,700 people, not the 2,700 the company indicated earlier.

Two days ago, on Monday, Marcelo Claure, Sprint’s new c.e.o., said that Sprint would reduce its workforce by an additional 2,000 people, over and above 687 people whom it downsized in October. Today, however, the company acknowledged that the 687-figure had actually mushroomed to about 1,700, putting the October-to-end-of-the-year cuts at about 3,700.

KC Star business reporter Mark Davis paraphrased Sprint spokesman Doug Duvall as saying that Sprint was offering voluntary buyouts to reach at least part of the 2,000 jobs left to be cut. If that didn’t get the job done, so to speak, layoffs would follow.

Davis also reported that employment in the Kansas City area will end this week at about 6,800, where it had been 7,500 earlier this year.

To put all this in perspective, The Star ran a chart on Monday, showing that in January 2007 — less than eigh0t years ago — Sprint had about 65,000 employees. In mid-September, the number was down to 33,000. Take away the new 3,700 and the company will have slightly less than 30,000 employees by the end of this year.

Of course, Sprint isn’t the only major Kansas City company taking the gas as a result of circumstances in and out of its control.

About the same time that Sprint had 65,000 employees, The Star had more than 2,000 employees. That’s now down to well under 1,000.

I’m betting now that The Star will be around, as a company called The Kansas City Star, longer than Sprint Corp. I think the Japanese company SoftBank, which owns 80 percent of Sprint, will probably offload at some point.

Among other tangents of a Sprint unraveling, I think we can look for the Sprint Center to get a name change within the next few years.

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Claure

And what’s the deal with this fellow Claure, a reputed Miami billionaire who reportedly has moved, or is moving, his family to the Kansas City area as part of his effort to revive Sprint?

Claure’s main push since taking over three months ago has been to oversee a goal (or, more likely, implement a SoftBank demand) that Sprint reduce its annual budget by $1.5 billion.

It looks to me like Inspector Claure is a glorified hatchet man. I expect him and his family to be back on South Beach within a year.

There’s another KC Star corollary here…Not long after Capital Cities Inc. bought the employee-owned paper in 1977, Jim Hale, the man whom Cap Cities sent in as publisher, hired a guy named Gerald Garcia as executive editor. Like Hale, Garcia hailed from Texas, as I recall. Garcia walked around the newsroom with a perverse, snarling, grin pasted on one side of his face.

One day, Garcia summoned 20 or more highly paid employees in a conference room — most of them had made a lot of money in the $2-for-$1 stock sale — and told them they were finished. Just like that…pack up, it’s time to go.

Not long after that, Garcia left the paper and went off to points unknown. The executioner’s job was finished, too.

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I wonder what is going to become of Sprint Corp., which now is down to — or getting to — about half of its one-time high number of about 63,000 employees.

What’s going to happen with that ugly, sprawling campus out by Town Center?

What is SoftBank Corp., the Japanese company that owns 80 percent of Sprint, going to do with this property, which is looking more and more like deadwood?

If you’ve been watching, more bad news surfaced about Sprint yesterday and today. Although Sprint’s total number of customers was up at the end of the third quarter (Sept. 30), it lost 336,000 prime customers, those who sign contracts. In addition, Marcelo Claure, Sprint’s new c.e.o. (as of three months ago), said Sprint would lay off 2,000 more employees, over and above a recently announced 687-person layoff.

Today, not surprisingly, investors hammered Sprint’s stock price, knocking it down by more than 18 percent before the market closed. (The company’s stock is down by more than 50 percent for the year.)

A positive step that Claure announced, in my opinion, was the reopening of a customer-service call center call at Sprint headquarters in Overland Park. He decided that was a good move, he said, after listening to customer service calls and determined that Sprint had “offshored” too much of the customer support business.

To me, that’s another way of saying he heard too many conversations where U.S. customers were having difficulty communicating effectively with non-native English speakers. That might sound politically incorrect, but, tell me, how many times have you called a big company’s customer service center and hoped that a native English speaker would take your call?

So, that’s a good move, and I hope it helps improve company fortunes.

To me, however, the biggest step that Claure could take would be to overhaul Sprint’s retail stores and how they serve customers.

The problems I encountered at those stores eventually ran me off as a Sprint customer.

For many years, I was part of our “family plan” and proudly told people I supported the “hometown company.” But with every visit to a retail store (I usually went to Ward Parkway) I found it increasingly difficult to get a satisfactory result. Every time I went in, it seemed, I saw a completely different cast of customer service reps.

And I never liked the front-desk check-in, where a rep would enter your name and problem and then add you to the electronic queue, which you would then sit and painfully watch on monitors suspended from the ceiling. It always took a long time, and then, when my name would be called, more often than not I got a rep who was either overly ebullient or completely bored.

It all came to a head about a year and a half ago, when I took in a recently purchased, low-end phone that gave me very poor reception. I had been in earlier with the same complaint and another rep had suggested that I call another Sprint division and ask to be sent an antenna system. Always game for an attempted fix, I did that, but the antenna system didn’t help.

So, there I was back at the store with the same problem I’d had a few weeks earlier. I told the rep I wanted a new phone. Sorry, he informed me, I had had the phone for more than 30 days and they couldn’t do an exchange. I tried to reason with the fellow, but it became clear that not only couldn’t they do an exchange, they absolutely wouldn’t.

Finally, totally frustrated, I told the guy, “I want a divorce. How much is it going to cost me?

Slightly curling one side of his face, he went into his computer to find the answer.

“Three hundred dollars,” he said.

“Done,” I said. “Cut me out of the family plan.”

I then walked over to the Verizon store about 50 yards away and was immediately and professionally assisted by a young man, who, I believe, was a manager or co-manager. No general check in and no looking for my name on a monitor, like I was being sorted and chuted in a customer-service bull pen.

I didn’t have to sign a contract, but I did have to buy a new phone, which I am paying off as part of my monthly bill. The phone I bought was an LG flip model, which serves my purposes just fine. Reception is good, and on the few occasions I have had to return to a Verizon retail store, someone has approached me within about a minute and either addressed the problem then and there or advised me to stand by for a few minutes.

Yes, I am paying a lot more per month than if I had stayed with the Sprint family plan. But, you know, sometimes family members have to go in different directions. My wife Patty thought I was crazy to bolt, and I have explained to her several times that cellphone peace of mind was more important to me than the money. And that’s all I have to say about that.

So, I strongly suggest that Marcelo Claure look deeper into the customer service issue and revamp his retail operation. He could start by following Verizon’s lead.

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I have a love/hate relationship with billboards.

Before 2013, I had no use for them whatsoever, but, I began to see their value when I headed a campaign committee that worked against Jackson County’s proposed half-cent sales-tax increase for medical research. We stopped the proposal dead in its tracks — 84 percent “no” to 16 percent “yes” — and I attribute the margin partly to four billboards my “Stop a Bad Cure” campaign committee purchased around the county.

Then, earlier this year, a campaign committee I was working with bought — at my suggestion — a $2,500 billboard on Noland Road to attack the state’s proposed one-cent sales tax for transportation projects. We won handily — 54 percent to 46 percent — and, again, I believe that billboard got our side a lot of votes. On the west side of Noland Road, north of I-70 and across from Truman High School, it gets about 90,000 “impressions” a week.

In general, though, billboards are an eyesore, and it’s hard to root for maintaining billboards that stand in the way of progress.

And that’s just the type of battle currently being waged over a very large billboard on the north end of the Main Street viaduct, at 20th Street.

Maybe you read Lynn Horsley’s front-page story about the issue in today’s KC Star.

The city has moved to condemn the billboard — contending that the area is “blighted” — to make way for a $19 million hotel at the entrance to the booming Crossroads district. but Lamar outdoor advertising has sued to try to stop the removal.

For obvious reasons, Lamar wants to keep the board. I say obvious because when you are headed north on Main Street as you approach 20th Street, the big board looms right in front of you. You can’t miss it, and there are no other billboards in the area. Like the billboard I have bought twice now on Noland Road, it commands a captive audience. Plus, it’s a two-sided board, and I would bet it gets 150,000 to 200,000 total impressions a week.

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Looking north, from the Main Street viaduct, where the ramp to Walnut Street veers off to the east. The city is planning to remove the ramp, which is closed.

The Lamar vs. Kansas City case has now gone to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court, and testimony began last Friday.

As Horsley reported, condemnation would clear the way for Sunflower Development Group to build a 5-story, 110-room hotel, which would operate as the first Hilton Home2Suites property in the area.

Jim Bowers, a formidable land-use attorney who is representing Lamar, contends that the $19 million hotel and the billboard could peacefully coexist…Well, yeah, I guess there’s a way the hotel could be built without taking down the billboard, but obviously the hotel operators want their sign, brandishing the Hilton flag, to be the prominent image at the intersection, not a big ad for Sprint or some other company.

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Looking south, from near the parking lot where the hotel presumably would be built. The former Western Auto building is off to the left.

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I took a good look at the area today, and I would think the city has a good chance to get the “blight” declaration. For one thing, the area directly below the billboard is a parking lot, situated between Main and Walnut. Also, immediately north of the billboard is the vacant lot that was the home of the Hereford House before co-owner Rod Anderson hired a couple of guys to torch it in 2008. (Anderson and the two arsonists were convicted. He got a 15-year-sentence, as did one of the arsonists. The other arsonist got a 20-year term.)

As I looked at that site, the signs of progress and potential were all around. Two sets of streetcar tracks — one for southbound cars and one for northbound cars — are being laid on the east and west sides of the thoroughfare, and the streetcar’s southern terminus, Union Station, is about two blocks away, at Pershing Road. Just south of there, of course, is the Liberty Memorial and Crown Center.

It’s easy to envision thousands of people — many of them tourists and some of them staying at the HiltonHome2Suites — riding up and down Main Street and going to various attractions, including Union Station, the Liberty Memorial, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Sprint Center and the Power & Light District.

This is what former Mayor Kay Barnes envisioned when she pushed for what she called a “Downtown-Crown-Plaza” corridor of attractions and activity. At the time, I thought it was a bit silly, but with the passage of time, the picture has become increasingly clear.

So, let’s hope that after testimony is completed in Circuit Court, Judge Margene Burnett rules that the city can go ahead and tear down the big board that impedes the view, not only of specific buildings, but also of progress in the heart of our city.

 

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