How Athens Police Department keeps its Bobcats under control during fest season

Springtime in Athens has rolled around again. With it comes beautiful weather, graduation, and of course fest season.

Fest weekends tend to be much more disorderly than the average weekend in Athens. As a result, the city always sees a necessary increase in police presence. With such an increase in population and risky behavior, what steps do the authorities take to keep these young adults safe?

The number of officers patrolling increases dramatically during the spring fests. Officers play a variety of distinct roles during this time of year. There are authorities patrolling on foot, horses, and some in plain clothes as undercovers.

Athens Police Department’s Mounted Patrol are the most iconic role that police employ during fest season. They never fail to get attention from students.

Mounted police begin their journey at the Athens Fairgrounds and ride their way into town toward the fest attendees. They typically travel in packs of 3 to 12 officers.

“We use the horses because it gives our police force more of a presence. We think that the presence of the horses and the view we get from being up high helps us to defuse and control situations before they can get out of hand,” said Ohio University Police Officer Bryan Newvahner. Mounted patrol officers seem to get the attention and respect of fest-goers much more effectively than officers in patrol cars, riding bikes, or on foot.

The Athens Police Department does allow for students to pet the horses, they just request that the students ask for permission before touching the animals.

A group of officers that I spoke with were all in agreement that an officer on horseback is much more effective at stopping and preventing reckless behavior in addition to maintaining order opposed to officers on foot. Mounted officers in Athens have been used since 1996 and do not seem to be going away anytime soon. They have become a staple in the spring fest image and culture.

Police reinforcements come from around the state from locations including; Columbus, Medina, Dublin, and Summit to name a few. They come from all over Ohio to support the Athens Police Department during its busy fest season. The Athens Police Department shares a mutual aid agreement where each department assists the other during busy weekends. “We need reinforcements to accommodate for the huge jump in population and risky behavior,” said Newvahner.

“We typically make around 25 to 30 arrests on any given busy fest,” said Newvahner. “We want to let students have fun but prevent them from hurting themselves or anyone else around them.” The majority of the arrests that law enforcement make are for public urination, underage drinking, or public intoxication.

Some of the fest attendees were under the impression that the police specifically targeted their party while allowing others to continue. This left me wondering, why do officers shut down certain parties and not others?

The Athens Police Department clearly wants to prevent and stop the reckless and risky behavior that comes with fest season, but why do they choose to shut down one party and allow the others to continue? To an outsider, each party just appears to have loud music and many drunk college students.

The main criteria that officers take into consideration when shutting down house parties during fests is behavior. “More often than not when we shut down a certain address it is because they have had several repeated offenses over a period of time at the same location,” said Newvahner. The repeated offenses usually happen later in the day, after students have already been drinking for an extended period of time.

Police did not always shut down street fests as early as they do now. When Ohio University was on the quarter system only a few years ago, fests would go much later into the evening.

Police began shutting down parties much earlier on the semester system because the conflict between fest-goers and law enforcement was so high. Athens Police Department found that when they prevented the fests from going so late, the encounters they had with students decreased dramatically.

As is to be expected, some students are less than enthusiastic about their parties getting shut down by the police. One tenant of a Mill Street rental property, Stephanie Anthony said, “there were parties a lot louder and crazier than ours. I don’t know why they shut us down, it’s our property.”

Each student that I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion on the police presence during the fests. Some were appreciative of the presence that they had and thought that it made them feel safer in a hectic environment.

I spoke to Mark Taylor, a sophomore studying management information systems to get his take. “I feel safer knowing that there are police all around me when so many people are drinking. They pretty much let us do what we want and only get involved if it gets too crazy, plus I love petting all the horses.”

There are also students who find that the police are too intrusive on their festing. “The number of cops just seems unnecessary, we have gotten more and more every year for the last four years and they shut down the streets earlier and earlier every year too,” said Brett Webb, a senior studying geology.

Officer Newvahner said that there are a few steps students can take to stay safe and avoid conflict with law enforcement during fest weekends. “Drinking on the sidewalk is and always has been illegal, so do not do it,” said Newvahner and a few of his colleagues.

The officers also said that respect is very important when it comes to dealing with the police. They are there to maintain order and keep students safe, they are not out to get anyone or prevent students from having a good time.

He also said, “if it is your house, try to keep it under control.” Recurring violations, such as noise, public urination, littering, and intoxication can lead to a citation and the authorities asking students to leave if they do not live there.

After interviewing representatives from both sides, students and law enforcement, there seems to be a good balance of control and freedom for the students to have fun without harming themselves or others around them.

Students and law enforcement look to have another successful fest season in spring of 2018.

The notorious Palmer Fest

Whether you are a partygoer or not, you are probably aware of the annual Palmer Fest if you are an Ohio University student or live in the Athens area. This fest has become one of Athens’ most recognizable events. On that note, let’s review some of the notorious instances that have taken place in recent years.

 

student being arrested
student being arrested

In 2010, Ohio University’s Student Senate set up “hydration stations” where volunteers passed out water to people who attended the fest, but this safety act did not prevent intoxicated people from lighting things on fire at the fest. An OU sophomore, who was 20 years old at the time, burned a couch at the fest. The student was charged with aggravated rioting and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges brought against him.

 

 

 

poster for safety campaign
poster for safety campaign

In 2011, the University Communications and Marketing designed a poster for the fest’s safety campaign. The poster featured a Las Vegas-style sign with the words “What happens in Athens stays on,” followed by the logos of Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Google, Myspace and YouTube. The idea behind this poster was to not only promote safety, but educate the students about the power of social media and how their actions could impact their careers, especially for seniors who were applying for jobs. In the meantime, OU Student Senate decided to work with Students Defending Students to make sure everyone knew about the difference between Halloween, a city-sanctioned street festival and the Spring fests, such as Palmer Fest, which are not city approved. The senate targeted on-campus students rather than off-campus students

Most recently, in 2012, a fire broke out at Palmer Fest and caused the evacuation of thousands of people who attended the fest. The fire was later ruled as arson, and all accidental causes were excluded by the investigators.

 

Video: 2012 Palmer Fest house fire

53d7e50fe4e54.imageAfter the fire, a five thousand dollar award was offered by the Athens Police Department to anyone who had information about the identification of the person or persons responsible for the fire.

 

The disruptive behaviors at Palmer Fest triggered Athens officials and law enforcement to reintroduce an old law in August 2012, which was the “Nuisance Party” law. The law was originally passed by the City Council in 2009 to give police the right to arrest people who continue to engage in disruptive behavior after a party has been shut down. More police manpower was enforced on the weekends to implement the nuisance party code.

 

fire truck at the Palmer fest
fire truck at the Palmer fest

Although things may seem out of hand at Palmer Fest, it is likely to remain as one of Athens’ most celebrated fests in the spring. Mayor Paul Wiehl said in 2012 after the fire that banning the fests would actually be “unconstitutional.” Instead, the city should do as much as possible to secure the fests.