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Wednesday, May 9,2012

Police chief: City can’t stop parties before they start

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits: Joel Bissell
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.


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These “fests” are NOT private parties.  The large crowds clearly make these into PUBLIC EVENTS. I’m not a legal expert, but I do believe that public events can be regulated.  I would love to hear the opinion of a lawyer or judge on this matter.  I find it hard to believe that the city has no ability to control the outcome of these fests in advance through laws and regulations.  It seems like the mayor and the two police chiefs are taking “constitutional right” and “private parties” way out of the context for which they apply.  In essence, I feel like they are lying to the community so that they don’t have to take any responsibility for ensuring the safety and well-being of the city and its people.



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I think the point here is they cannot prove a "connection" between every party.  Obviously it is not the case but by coincidence 20 people on one street could all decide to have a party on the same day without consulting one another.  They cannot ban individual parties.  As renters, students are allowed to host guests and events.  There is no anti-party or anti-guest clause in my contract (I live on Grosvenor).  He makes it clear what the issue is: having parties in their yards is legal.  Having it spill over onto the street and sidewalks is not.  So he's proposing encouraging the parties move into backyards which would reduce sidewalk/street volume.

Have you been at a fest when it has gotten busted up?  The police have no qualms about laying down the law fast and hard.  I believe that Mayor Wiehl and Chief Powers would enact a ban if allowed - it is clear they do not enjoy these fests.  How can anyone really think two of the most powerful men in the city are just being soft?

I believe what they are afraid of is not students but what in law is called a 'slippery slope' - once you ban street fests, then what sort of other public functions must be banned?  As Powers pointed out - would a 100 person birthday be able to be banned?

I had my 21st birthday in February and hired a DJ for it.  All year I would consider myself to have been a great neighbor up to that point - quiet, clean yard.  But one of my town resident neighbors called the police right at midnight and they shut my party down at 12:01.  There was only about 40 people there, it was extremely low-key (my friends are neo peace-loving hippies, we were all just sitting around meditating and listening to music).  When I asked the officers if my friends could stay if the DJ left, they told me no and stood on the porch until each and every person left and then they came inside to ensure I had complied.


A few days ago one of my town resident neighbors had about 70 people in their backyard for a cookout.  I was trying to study and the noise carried well into my room between laughing, children screaming, conversation - I had the equal right to retaliate and call this neighbor in as they called me in (and got me put on "six month noise probation.")  But of course, if a student called in and said a town resident's party was a nuisance - the police would be slow to respond, if at all.  Certainly not the 12:01 prompt treatment I received.


My point is: the mayor and the police are NOT on the student's side in any way.  Even when a party is chill and harmless but just a little loud - they do not accept peaceable requests for continued assembly - they enforce a shut-down.

There simply is no law against everybody hosting 'individual' parties on the same street on the same day. It sounds like they are being weak but you just have to consider the slippery slope of the situation.  Instead, they are trying to make legal changes which could include no front yard partying (no roof parties was already enacted).  That would alleviate issues.  Flat-out banning parties is not legal, sorry, and no expert would tell you otherwise. 



I'm telling you, the police presence plays a very negative role in this whole mess.  They definitely should be near the fests to help.  But marching up and down the street like it's Red Square only exacerbates the situation.  Why not shut down the street for the fest?  I don't know what the best solution is, but I do know that a Martial Law atmosphere is not the answer.