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Back to Archives | Back to August 2005 Contents 

Confronting Celebratory Riots with an Accreditation Foundation

By Dave Kurz, Chief of Police, Durham, New Hampshire

Photograph by Aaron Rhode

he chief of a smaller police department is expected to be knowledgeable about every challenge the police department faces. If the chief cannot confront the issue based on his or her knowledge, then the chief better have an understanding of where to find the answers fast. Yet smaller police agencies do not have the staff to conduct research and then develop and implement a strategy to address unusual challenges. But this limitation does not stop the community from looking to chief for answers and solutions for a multitude of issues. For this reason, the Durham Police Department administration has longed viewed its accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) as an important strategy to help the agency accomplish tasks it isn't frequently called on to do.

Most police chiefs have paperwork related to uncommon challenges collecting dust on their desk simply because the answers are not readily available. Some problems are obviously more important than others. CALEA accreditation ensures that a policy and procedure is in place in the event that one of those dusty objects, such as a celebratory riot, rears its ugly head and needs immediate attention. The CALEA manual has an entire chapter pertaining to unusual occurrences that provides significant guidance in formulating strategies to confront those issues that many chiefs hope they will never have to face.

The Celebration Phenomenon
In recent years there has been an emerging national phenomenon, often associated with sporting events, known as celebratory riots. Many of these events are occurring in small college towns, where police have limited resources to contain the disorder. Celebratory riots combine the ingredients for a disaster: alcohol, immaturity, overzealousness, and a mob mentality. The challenge to law enforcement is not lessened simply because the softening adjective "celebratory" is in front of the word "riot." The local police department charged with quelling such illegal behavior has no soft adjectives for failure; the situation must be professionally handled with limited resources.

Case Study: Durham, New Hampshire, 2003
The Durham Police Department had no way of knowing that 2003 would bring three riots. In hindsight, the administration knows that having a policy for addressing these unusual occurrences was the key to a successful response.

Durham is host to the University of New Hampshire and approximately 12,000 students who reside on and off campus for at least eight months of the year. As a law enforcement agency in a university environment, the department sometimes deals with young people who are often testing limits-theirs and the law's. So when annual events such as homecoming weekend arrive, officers understand what police response should and must look like. But when the University of New Hampshire's men's hockey team made it to the Frozen Four, as the finals of the National College Athletic Association national hockey championship is known, Durham police administrators understood that the 19 Durham police officers could not sufficiently deal with the celebration without a significant plan.

For any police agency, planning for such an event would be a challenge. But it is especially daunting for a smaller agency. With limited exposure to such challenges, smaller agencies may not even know where to turn for advice and direction. But the agency did have CALEA's Unusual Occurrence standard and accompanying policy. This standard outlined the issues that must be considered when developing a successful operational plan.

While the department had a generic policy in place, this standard served as a guide allowing specific responses and ensured that the administration knew the questions to ask. Although there are a host of police-related considerations, every successful police manager recognizes the importance of the political climate and accompanying considerations. Making sure that all entities of the community are informed of the police department's overall strategy and gaining insight regarding what that community may expect from the police department is not only intelligent but may serve to offer new strategies for consideration. So while the Durham Police Department was formulating an operational plan to address all potentialities surrounding the aftermath of the national championship, a number of meetings with university officials, downtown businesses, housing landlords, and fraternity and sorority leaders were taking place.

The university officials were working diligently to offer alternative venues for celebrating or venting, depending on the game's outcome, to avoid destruction of property on the campus or in the town. Durham police officers developed a letter and individually delivered that letter to downtown merchants requesting that they empty all large trash bins, clean debris from around their buildings, and remove or secure loose objects. The public works department removed trash containers, flowerpots, and other decorative items from the downtown area.

Newspaper articles were written focusing upon alternative celebration venues instead of the town streets. The newspaper also reported how police were preparing for any eventuality. Interviews with town councilors and the town administrator, where they discussed their hope that there would be responsible celebrations, appeared in the media in the weeks leading up to the event.

Landlords were elicited to convey responsibility to their tenants and reinforce that many leases prohibited large parties. Student leaders urged their classmates to celebrate responsibly. Finally, the president of the university sent letters to parents urging them to talk with their children about celebrating responsibly.

The Police Response
While the 19 police officers in Durham work routinely in partnership with the 22 police officers at the University of New Hampshire Police and are generally adequate in number to deal with the normal police needs of the community, the planning for a celebratory riot demands significantly larger resources. When inquiries were made to determine availability of officers from outside agencies, it was discovered that many of the current mutual aid agreements were in need of updating and others simply did not exist. The lesson learned is the importance of scheduling a regular review and update of these agreements.

Effective crowd control would be dependent upon the formation of police teams under the control of either a Durham or University of New Hampshire supervisor who understood the student clientele and had firsthand knowledge of the geographical area. The teams and their composition were predetermined as was their area of deployment. Most important, goals were established for each team. Each team was given the primary goal of moving crowds and a number of secondary goals to maintain control over a specific location.

Communications: During this tense time the communications center could quickly be overwhelmed with transmissions. To reduce radio traffic, to allow the teams to move more effectively, and to keep the communications center running smoothly, the department restricted radio communications to supervisors only. Restricting the use of the communication system was safely accomplished without any threat to the safety of officers.

Prisoners: Police realized that an effective plan must give ample consideration to the ability to maintain order while dealing with the logistical reality of what happens when arrests are made. Transporting prisoners to the police facility one mile away and, once there, having adequate support staff for processing prisoners was clearly a pressing matter. Again the CALEA standards formed a foundation for the department to address the needs associated with mass arrests. The ability to process and confine arrestees who may be juveniles can best be addressed prior to the event rather than during.

Identifying beforehand the need to correlate evidence, ensure the identity of the arrestee, and have adequate supplies of water and medical personnel on scene was extremely beneficial. The teams of officers were assigned flex cuffs that were numbered to help identify the officer and the team making arrests to avoid confusion during the processing of prisoners.

Horses and Motorcycles: Police planning before an event includes identifying any special equipment that could be needed. The effectiveness of horses amid large crowds as well as their ability to move through crowds placed horses high on Durham's list of needed resource. Motorcycles, with their ability to move through the community quickly, were also on the list.

Riot Gear: Helmets, shields, and long batons for each team were in close proximity but not distributed immediately. During the planning discussions, a number of students observed that the presence of police dressed in riot gear would be considered a provocation by celebrants and could incite student aggression. This view could have been a simple attempt to shift personal responsibility for their behavior away from the students themselves, but police officials could not ignore it.

The Frozen Four
When the University of New Hampshire men's hockey team lost to the University of Minnesota in the national championship game of the National College Athletic Association Hockey Tournament, the Durham Police Department and its law enforcement partners were able to react in a professional manner. In the aftermath of the game, a crowd, later estimated to exceed 4,000, attempted to take over the downtown. Eight-seven persons were arrested for a variety of offenses. As a direct result of the department's use of the CALEA standards as a template, an effective plan was in place that allowed the department to stay out of a reactionary mode where mistakes could have been plentiful.

Among the factors contributing to the riot were all-day parties at off-campus complexes and fraternity houses providing students with a place to drink leading up to the game. The game occurred on one of the first nice spring days after a long cold winter, and the weather encouraged more people to be outside after the game and increased the number of spectators who came merely to see what would happen.

While the celebratory riot lasted approximately two hours, police de-escalation commenced in a very structured and methodical manner. Police officers who traveled the farthest to Durham were released first, with local officers who needed to be at work the next morning quickly following.

Major League Baseball Championship
Possibly the most important aspect of the Frozen Four riot-control process was a critique of the events. Identifying what worked well and what strategy should be discarded was an incredibly beneficial exercise. And it paid off sooner than Durham police expected. Within a few months, police would have to respond to two more celebratory riots during the Major League Baseball championship playoffs, one after the Boston Red Sox defeated Oakland in the American League divisional championship and another after the Red Sox lost to the rival Yankees in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.

Because these games were expected to cause disturbances throughout New England, student leaders and administrators of the university and town officials and community leaders developed alternatives for students. An on-campus area was secured for students to gather to watch the game with food, nonalcoholic refreshments, and a DJ. Even with this alternative in place, students gathered off campus on the town's Main Street, giving rise to a large civil disturbance.

Again the police department answered the situation because of the planning ability developed through the CALEA accreditation process. It is interesting to note that after this celebration riot, students wrote editorials in the school newspaper questioning why rioting was happening at the university. The message that rioting is not acceptable spread through student groups and organizations.

Finding the Long-Term Solution
It was clear that a long-term solution was needed to prevent further disruptions in the community. The atmosphere was disheartening as area residents avoided the downtown due to the disturbances, thereby creating further economic challenges for community's merchants. Citizens of the entire state of New Hampshire were dismayed to see televised images of rioting in Durham, and graduating seniors were hearing from prospective employers "Oh, you're from that riot school!"

Student leaders seized the initiative and invited other universities with similar experiences to travel to New Hampshire for a student summit on promoting responsible celebrations in September 2003. Students from nine campuses attended. Law enforcement officials, university administrators, athletes, and fraternity student leaders expressed their thoughts and concerns about celebratory riots in an open forum.

Students at the summit explained how the riots affect many subpopulations on campuses. Student leaders acknowledge that one of the most difficult issues they face is how to handle an issue that they know is wrong yet not alienate the people they represent. Fraternal organizations felt they were being treated as scapegoats instead of being viewed as another group negatively affected by riots and a potential ally in solving the problem. The consensus view among the students at the University of New Hampshire, and across the United States, is the same as that of the university administrators, community members, and law enforcement: they want to curb this ongoing problem.

Business leaders also met for soul-searching discussions about alcohol sales and their promotions, such as twofer nights, that encouraged binge drinking.

Fraternities worked with police to encourage responsible celebrations, and a new campaign called "Durham . . . It's Where U Live" attempts to remind students that they are part of a community of which the university is only one part. School officials reacted swiftly and decisively to the celebratory riots and suspended students charged with felonies. Other rioters were placed on probation and financial scholarships were rescinded.

Success: The Super Bowl
February 2005 saw the New England Patriots playing in the Super Bowl of the National Football League. Leaders in Durham feared another celebratory riot after the game but hoped the antirioting message had reached students and modified their behavior. It had. Student leaders in bright yellow shirts walked the downtown with university officials. Police were highly visible but did not wear riot gear and interacted with students and others in a positive, friendly, and tempered manner. After the Patriots won, there was euphoria and excitement and some responsible celebrating, but no celebrants attempted to take over Durham's streets, there was no destruction of property, and there was no need for arrests.

Today, members of the Durham community have new faith in the good judgment of students and other celebrators, and they take comfort in knowing that the Durham Police Department has a plan to deal with civil disturbances. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 8, August 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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