Photo Caption: After the house fire broke out during Palmer Fest Saturday, police face off against masses of partiers on Palmer Street.
While law enforcement has the teeth to shut down parties that get out of hand, it has no such authority to preemptively stop private gatherings, Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said in an interview Tuesday.
Ten days after the early shutdown of the annual Palmer Fest block party on April 28 after a house caught fire in the midst of the fest, Pyle made a variety of suggestions about how the city could move forward addressing the often problematic student street fests. He proposed that moving these parties to the houses' backyards would go a long way toward alleviating public right-of-way concerns. Currently, thousands of students and their out-of-town guests crowd the yards and porches of the series of house parties along Palmer Street (and other streets during other fests), with many massed in the front yards.
Moreover, Chief Pyle said that the community should work on re-shaping the reputation of these fests to dissuade troublemaking.
But in the end, Pyle agreed with previous statements from Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl that law enforcement simply doesn't have the authority to stop private gatherings before they occur.
"A lot of people in the community call for the city to ban it," he said. "What they don't understand that they're saying, or trying to impose, is they're asking us to ban a private function."
Pyle said there is simply no legal mechanism in place for the city to outright ban a private function.
"It would be the same as saying I want to have a birthday party in my backyard with 100 people, and the same ban that would ban Palmer Fest or Mill Fest or whatever fest you can imagine, would also ban a birthday party or a barbeque," he said.
Police have authority on public streets and an obligation to protect public rights-of-way, he said. And that's where the conflict with these fests begins because the city has to protect public space and keep it safe.
"The issue of private property versus public property, the issue of the freedom to assemble versus due process – equal treatment under the law – there's the conflict right there," he said. "So what we need to do is find a way to better regulate some of these things."
Past discussions, he pointed out, involved a possible permit process. He said the best way he can think of is simply to shift these parties away from the city rights-of-way by removing them from the front lawns.
"We need these things to move back into the backyards where they started," he said, citing his experience as an officer during the very first Palmer Fest. "It was in the backyard. There were probably 500 or 600 people there. They had bands all day. And it was never a problem."
When landlords built apartments in the backyards and took up that space and the party spilled into the front, that's when the problems started, according to Pyle. The real problem is when a private party interferes with the public right-of-way, he added.
"I'm with the majority of the community and probably the majority of students in saying that these (fests) are not necessarily safe; they're not necessarily serving any purpose," he said. "We'd like to see them go away or at least change so the reputation of them goes away."
He said these events are essentially private parties that mean long hours for his department and cost the city a lot of money. He noted that the street fests events are not sanctioned and the streets are not shut down for them.
The city does have a nuisance party law on the books, Pyle said. And they did use it to shut down at least one house party during Palmer Fest this year prior to the house fire at 11 Palmer that ended the entire event.
"That ordinance was never passed to prevent a party from happening," he said. "That ordinance was passed to end it if it became out of hand."
A lot of responsibility falls on the residents of the houses – the hosts of the parties themselves – to ensure that their own party doesn't get out of control, Pyle said.
"We need to change the reputation to stop these people who come to town to see what happens, if not start the trouble themselves," he said. "The university students need to take back that reputation and say, 'We're no longer in the business of starting a riot; we're going to have a clean and safe party in the backyards, and we're going to be responsible.'"
Unfortunately these parties have devolved into repeated bad behavior, Pyle said.
"We're not out to stop a party," he added. "We're out to stop bad behavior."
OU POLICE CHIEF ANDREW POWERS said Monday that looking forward, his department will work with the APD to attempt to dissuade similar bad behavior from fests on Oak Street and Mill Street this weekend (Friday and Saturday, respectively).
He said that Pyle and he, as well as other emergency personnel, will develop a plan before the weekend.
"We don't really disclose operational details but obviously we are mindful of what happened at Palmer Fest, and we don't want to have a repeat of that, so we'll do what we can to try to prevent that," he said.
When it comes to attempting to prevent fire situations, Powers said each department takes various pro-active steps.
"We're obviously aware of the fact that fires have been a facet of Palmer Fest and other fests in the past, so that is something that officers are on the lookout for," he said. "In this case, somebody broke into a basement and set a fire in a house. And that's not something that's happened before. That makes it a little more difficult to identify and prevent ahead of time."
The goal is to identify all threats as early as possible, he said.