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.

Declining house parties leave underage Bobcats out in cold

When 15-year-old Taylor Lykins stepped onto the campus of Ohio University for the first time in 2007, she was mesmerized by what she saw on the streets of Athens.

“It was house after house, party after party,” Lykins recalled. “Loud music and dancing completely took over the neighborhoods.”

Inforgraphic OU NightlifeEven though her sister, Emily, was only a freshman at the time of Taylor’s first visit, both girls said they were never short on things to do throughout Emily’s next four years.

“My boyfriend lived at a big party house,” Emily, a 2010 grad, said. “We always had some place to drink.”

Emily owned a fake ID but she found no reason to use it because her social life revolved around parties. Rather than barhop, she and her fellow Bobcats would spend the night jumping from one house to the next, red Solo cups in hand.

But by the time Taylor started her freshman year at OU in 2011, OU’s social scene had completely shifted.

“I went from not needing an ID when I was in high school to being a college student and all of a sudden needing an ID to do anything,” Taylor said.

Although Ohio University is known for its esteemed academic programs, rich history and quaint local flair, it is OU’s social scene that has grabbed national headlines throughout the past decade. OU graces Princeton Review’s Top Party Schools list year after year, and notorious party website BroBible recently published an entire article titled “10 Reasons Ohio University Is The Best Party School In the United States.” Both publications cite OU’s fest season, HallOUween, and homecoming traditions as the reasoning behind the university’s party school reputation — but make no mention of any house party culture.

Taylor Lykins isn’t the only student who has noticed Bobcats’ social evolution from house parties to bars: Many other Ohio University students claim house parties have all but disappeared from their social lives. Student-heavy streets like Congress and Palmer are still as chaotic as Taylor remembers, but rather than the neighborhoods overrun with Bobcats making their way from one party to another, the sidewalks are transformed into a maze of eager bar-goers heading Uptown for the night.

Unless house parties are thrown in conjunction with other events such as the fests or Welcome Weekend, OU’s nightlife now revolves almost entirely around the bar scene on Court Street.

Some students speculate that OU’s dying house party scene is a result of an ordinance passed by the Athens City Council in 2009 that makes it easier for police to shut down raging parties and prosecute disruptive students in attendance.

Before 2009, law required that police arrest and charge partiers with at least four separate violations before the party could even be labeled a nuisance. The ordinance passed five years ago requires only one violation and lets police arrest anyone who does not leave the party after it shuts down. The ordinance also deems landlords responsible for their guests’ uncontrollable behavior.

Arrested partiers face nuisance charges, which are minor misdemeanors that carry $150 fines for the first offense. If violators break the law a second time within 18 months, they face a fourth-degree misdemeanor that comes with a possible 30-day jail term and a $250 fine.

With the passing of the new ordinance, Athens City Council and the police departments have seen positive results. In the last two years alone, fest season arrests have gone down nearly 25 percent. In 2013, police arrested 156 students at house parties during High Fest, Mill Fest, Palmer Place and Palmer Fest — a significant decrease from 2012’s fest season that resulted in 353 arrests.

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Photo by Maria Fischer

With many Bobcats feeling uneasy about hosting house parties of their own, students began turning to fraternity houses to throw the “raging” parties in true Animal House style. However, even Ohio University’s frats have backed away from being the go-to sources for house parties: Pi Kappa Alpha became inactive in 2012 and lost its 12 N. College St. house after officials found drugs in a warranted raid. Sigma Pi followed suit, losing its notorious 8 N. College St. house in 2013, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon is expected to lose its 57 E. State St. house early next year after a surprise membership review left nearly half of its members suspended and forced to move out.

Without house parties — Greek or non-Greek — to fall back on, this current bar trend leaves underage Bobcats in a dilemma each weekend: head out to Court Street in hopes of finding something legal to do, or risk an arrest by sneaking into bars with a fake ID. While house parties are certainly not the most effective ways to keep younger students out of trouble, OU’s former house party scene at least offered underage Bobcats more options for nighttime fun on campus.

“Other than go out to eat, there’s not much for underage kids to do on Court Street at night,” Nicolette Lambos, a freshman, said. “Unlike New York or nearby big cities like Columbus, Athens doesn’t even have a legit club scene for 18-year-olds to go to instead of sneaking into bars.”

In an effort to offer students more nightlife options, Athens attempted to open a club but it quickly failed. A dance nightclub, Evolution, was located at 19 S. Court Street and lived a short life. The Mediterranean restaurant Habibi’s opened two years ago and now sits in Evolution’s space.

In late November of this year, another club opened in the basement of Red Brick under the alias Club Underground. Hopeful that this club will be more successful than the last, Red Brick allows students 18 and older to dance the night away every Wednesday through Saturday.

But Athens’ inconsistent, on-again off-again club scene leaves many students far from hopeful.

“I doubt it will take off,” Andrew Dolan, a junior, said.

So if nightclubs and house parties are seldom found, what is an underage Bobcat to do? Type in a quick Google search of “Athens Ohio nightlife” and a list of bar after bar pops up. But of the 30-plus bars that appear from the search, only one offers 18-and-up bar nights: Red Brick.

Lauren Kumper, a Red Brick employee, said owners allow students who are at least 18 to hang out upstairs at the bar every Wednesday and Thursday.

“There’s a $3 admission and anyone under 21 can’t drink but at least there’s dancing,” Kumper said. “Wednesday night is karaoke night so a lot of freshmen and sophomores come out to the bar and do a song.”

While Red Brick offers underage students a few nights of fun during the week, these young Bobcats find themselves with limited options on weekend nights. This leaves Athens Pyramids, the local hookah bar, as the only remaining legal alternative to the Court Street bars and club scene.

Majed Batawil, Athens Pyramids owner, said his establishment has always been 18 and up.

“We don’t serve alcohol so you don’t have to be 21 to come in,” Batawil said.

Batawil said his customers are divided equally between underage students and Bobcats who are over 21 but admitted his staff still has to check IDs after a string of high school students were caught trying to sneak in.

Emily Lykins made note of the change in the campus dynamic when she returned in October for OU’s homecoming.

“It felt like it was a completely different school. Red Brick used to be so popular they had shot girls walking around and now they couldn’t get 20 people in there on homecoming weekend. I walked down the street my boyfriend used to live on and saw almost no parties.”

Lykins’ observations leave current students wondering what OU will be like when they return a few years after they graduate. With an increase in nightlife options and a decrease in house party arrests, perhaps police will loosen their grip and OU will return to its nightlife “glory days”: a time when students felt like they had more options than just a night spent drinking at (or sneaking into) the bars of Court Street.

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Maria Fischer is a journalism student at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, falling somewhere between a junior and a senior. She is a self-proclaimed coffee addict and lipstick enthusiast. After completing her capstone in online publication production, promotion & design, she hopes to write for an online magazine and turn her passions for blogging and social media into a career. Visit her blog for Ohio University’s student-run fashion magazine, Thread, at http://frommetrocardstomealplans.blogspot.com.