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Changes coming to Columbia ARC after June fight

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

Columbia Parks and Recreation leaders are considering multiple changes at the Activity and Recreation Center following a fight involving a gun in June.

ABC 17 News obtained video from the ARC showing portions of the fight involving multiple people. At least two people, Lakeisha Thomas and Kameron Mearidy, have been charged for their roles in the fracas. 

Video shows a woman police identified as Thomas running into the ARC through the front door around 4:30 p.m. People are seen spilling toward the front desk of the building pushing each other. The woman runs out of the building while the parties are separated. The groups then leave the camera’s view before the person identified as Thomas returns with a gun.

The woman can be seen walking by several people, including the worker at the front desk.

Another portion of the video shows a part of the fight. The camera is positioned across the ARC’s pool and shows at last three people throwing punches at someone below the window.

“That’s very disturbing to watch someone on a video that has a gun into a building,” Parks and Recreation director Gabe Huffington said. “But it’s a scary situation and it’s a situation that we have to reflect on as a staff and then start to make a lot of different steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again or make sure our staff has training to know what to do if it does happen again if its concealed, for instance, and we don’t know ... And so that’s what we’ve spent the last probably four or five months doing.”

Jessica Caldera, attorney for Thomas, said the woman’s son was a victim in the fight.

“Ms. Thomas’s 17-[year]-old son tried to walk away,” Caldera said. “Multiple people then ambushed him from behind and none of the ARC employees did anything to stop the fight at any time.”

An attorney for Mearidy did not respond to a request for comment.

Months before the fight, the Columbia City Council received a warning from a woman about the ARC. Demetria Stephens spoke at the March council meeting about threats young people had been making to others at the facility. Stephens said staff members had reported feeling fearful of the activity. 

“There is a situation waiting to happen,” Stephens said. “If you guys, city, whoever is going to take care of this, it needs to happen and needs to happen fast.”

Huffington said the department upped its private security coverage at the ARC in response to that. The extra staffing tailed off as the summer began and was not present on the day of the fight. Huffington said patrons can expect to see staff from Citadel Security even more.

Huffington said the department has focused on three main topics -- building improvements, staffing and policies. 

Parks and Rec plans on installing six new security cameras throughout the building and parking lot. The June fight went down some hallways where blind spots exist in the current camera setup. Huffington said they also planned on improving the public address system.

At least one patron suggested Parks and Rec switch where its front desk is placed inside the ARC. An email obtained by ABC 17 News through an open records request shows a part-time employee at the ARC suggested the city do more to manage access to the building. That included moving the desk in front of the doors and installing two turnstiles on each side of it.  

The city will also go through its public improvement process to reconfigure the front desk. Currently, the desk is placed off to the side from the front entrance. Huffington said the project would aim to improve customer service at the ARC and get a better handle on crowds coming in.

“So one of the conversations we’re going to have is how do we have better control of an individual that comes into the building,” Huffington said. “So in terms of stopping them to talk to us, or how do they go to enter what I call the swimming pool, basketball area, fitness equipment, we’re going to start to work on that this fall to winter, and then go to city council for approval.”

AJ Rugen started a Facebook group for people who were at the ARC during the fight. He generally supported some of the suggested changes but said building staff needed more physical tools to prevent a similar incident from happening.

“If you see somebody coming toward a building with a gun, and you can set off an alarm, having that barrier to slow them down, you know, seconds matter,” Rugen said.

Huffington said the new city budget allows them to hire another full-time staff member to work at the ARC. This new supervisor position will give the facility another person familiar with city and building policies that can help.

“They start to understand 'here’s our daily policies,' you know, when we’re busy and when we have some slower times, and they know a lot of our members,” Huffington said.

The department is also considering how to track who is in the ARC and when. Staff visited other recreation centers in the state, Huffington said, to see how other facilities handled identification for daily visits. The department installed new software in August that lets staff log incidents, such as fights, and allows supervisors and other workers to review what happened.

The control desk move is part of a larger renovation project with a budget of nearly $1 million. Most of the money will come from the city's parks sales tax. The extra cameras will cost up to $23,000, Huffington says.

The 73,000-square-foot building opened in 2002 and cost $10.5 million.

Parks and Rec will also put employees through more training, including city-run de-escalation and active shooter training. Huffington said he wanted to get former police Lt. Mike Hestir to help walk through the facility to identify ways to handle incidents.

Rugen, though, said he doesn’t plan on taking his family back to the ARC until he feels comfortable with the changes made.

“Once a bridge is burned there’s no going back in my opinion,” Rugen said. “Unless there’s such drastic change in you know maybe these improvements will be those changes necessary, but unless there’s some massive shift in how you feel, how secure my family feels when they’re there, I don’t foresee us going back.” 

Huffington said he hoped the changes would instill confidence in the facility and its staff.

“We have a lot of great things for the community, so we don’t want to be judged by one incident that happens, or we have some fights that happen at the ARC and that shouldn’t be how people judge our facility,” Huffington said.

Article Topic Follows: ABC 17 News Investigates

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Lucas Geisler

Lucas Geisler anchors the 5 p.m. show for ABC 17 News and reports on the latest news around mid-Missouri at 9 and 10 p.m.

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