Fire, police calls up in Amherst despite efforts to control partying students



Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012

AMHERST — Calls for police officers and firefighters to quell disturbances caused by college-age people over the first three weeks of the semester are up over the same period last year, despite multipronged efforts by officials to reduce these incidents.

Amherst police made 67 arrests for underage drinking, excessive noise, driving while intoxicated, and carrying open containers of alcohol from Sept. 1-18, compared to 52 such arrests last year, Capt. Christopher Pronovost said. Officers summoned to court an additional 107 people for these offenses, compared to 36 last year, he said, and many of these summonses would have been arrests if the Police Department had more officers.

“It’s not a good start” to the school year, Pronovost told those gathered at the monthly meeting of the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking last week.

There have been two incidents this month of young people throwing cans and bottles at police officers when they have tried to disperse large parties, Pronovost said. One officer was injured while making an arrest on Fearing Street two weeks ago and is still unable to work, he said. Officers on the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift on weekends often don’t go off-duty until 3 or 4 a.m., he said.

“The level of violence is such that someone will get seriously hurt,” Pronovost warned. “Things are happening that are of great concern beyond the quality of life in Amherst.”

The number of summonses for open container or underage drinking violations increased from 28 to 77, he said. The number of “nuisance house” citations — typically triggered by underage drinking, crowds interfering with traffic, fights or unsafe behavior — increased from two to 20, he said.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department has had to provide ambulances for dangerously drunk young people more often this month than in past Septembers, said Assistant Chief Lindsey Stromgren. Of the 45 weekend calls for ambulance service to the University of Massachusetts the past three weekends, 27 have been for alcohol or drug problems, mostly involving underage drinkers, he said. In addition, there were 12 weekend ambulance calls to Amherst and Hampshire colleges, with six of them involving alcohol problems, he said.

By comparison, last year, 26 of the 67 weekend calls at UMass were alcohol- or drug-related, while in 2006 there were just 26 calls for ambulance service those first three weekends, 11 of which were alcohol- and drug-related.

“It’s a big wake-up call,” Stromgren said.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said many of these patients are teenagers. “My guess is many are freshmen away from home for the first time,” Nelson said.

The Fire Department now has 11 officers on duty on weekend nights, compared to nine last year, he said. It has had between 120 and 160 calls a week for the last three weeks, an increase over last year, he said. All the department’s five ambulances are in use at the same time at least once almost every day, requiring off-duty firefighters to be called back to work, he said.

Pronovost told the town-gown coalition last week that the Amherst police are becoming increasingly reactive, merely responding to calls for assistance.

“Officers say they’ve never seen such brazenness, with young people making no attempt to hide beer while walking down the street,” he said.

Looking for fun

One big problem is that large groups of young people leave campus and show up at an off-campus party, often uninvited, Pronovost said. A common theme he hears is that students say there’s nothing for them to do on campus.

“They want to be at a place where they can do things we don’t allow,” said Jean Kim, UMass vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life.

April McNally, a UMass health educator, suggested finding out what on-campus activities would be attractive to students, and recruiting students to join the coalition. “Students don’t want administrators telling them what to do,” she said.

Part of the problem is that UMass students are growing up in “a more aggressive drinking culture” in which alcohol consumption is glorified, said Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

Stephanie O’Keeffe, chairwoman of the Amherst Select Board, asked whether “swifter justice” for student violators would help. She asked if more cooperation between the Amherst and UMass police would be appropriate.

In an interview later, O’Keeffe noted that many steps have been taken to contain the problem. Amherst enacted a “nuisance house” bylaw, UMass has stepped up its alcohol education campaign, the Amherst police have increased their outreach to off-campus students, and there’s more town-gown communication, but more creative strategies are needed, she said.

“It is very frustrating to have us all working so hard on these issues and have the semester be off to such a tough start,” she said. “But being frustrated doesn’t mean we’re failing. When you think about all the risk factors and societal trends, it’s clear that things would be much worse if we weren’t doing what we’re doing.”

Campus quiet

While the Amherst police have been busy, the campus itself has been relatively quiet, said Lt. Thomas O’Donnell, the interim UMass deputy chief. O’Keeffe said she has been talking to both police departments about joint patrols and helping each other out during busy times.

“We have a fluid problem of kids moving between the campus and the community and it makes sense to take a fluid approach with our public safety resources,” she said. “Having artificial boundaries (between the campus and the town) isn’t making sense.”

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he plans to discuss these issues with John Horvath, the new UMass police chief, and perhaps get help in areas near the campus, where residents have hired private security officers on weekends. Amherst police have stopped scheduling joint patrols with UMass police and seeking extra help on busy weekends because of issues that need to be resolved with the UMass officers union, Pronovost said.

“We would welcome any help we can get from them, but there are issues that need to be ironed out,” he said. He declined to be more specific.

Livingstone said, “The UMass police have police powers off campus, and they don’t need our permission to do that.”

Patrick Archbald, the interim UMass police chief, said he hopes that joint patrols can resume.

“We stand ready to cooperate with all our partners to do what we can to help,” he said. Kim said that joint patrols are “back on the table to look at.”

O’Keeffe said she attended a recent conference for UMass students on alcohol sponsored by the Northwestern district attorney’s office, and came away feeling more optimistic. Students themselves have to make a difference in solving the alcohol problem, she said.

“There are student leaders paying a lot of attention and who want to help change the attitude that college is all about binge drinking and bad behavior,” she said. “They don’t want that to be the image future employers have when they present their diploma to them. They’re saying it isn’t acceptable to taint the reputation of UMass this way.”


 


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