Sunday, November 20, 2005
More alcohol arrests, more worries
More violations were reported in Radford in two months than in all of 2004 in Blacksburg, something that remains on the minds of Radford University students. | Slide show
RADFORD -- Murmurs punctuated by occasional laughter filled the front porch of a home on the "Dark Side" of Radford University's campus.
The ominously named neighborhood dotted with student homes is known to attract fewer police officers than the "Light Side" neighborhood west of the university.
But that didn't mitigate student paranoia.
At about midnight on a cold Friday in November, most of the students were gathered inside the house. But at any given time, six to 10 students congregated on the front porch, smoking cigarettes and holding bottles of Natural Light close to their bodies.
There was no loud music playing or students screaming.
But as a police car crept by on a nearby street, about 50 yards away, the conversations came to a quick halt.
"Shhhhh! Everybody inside!" hissed party host Andy Arrington.
While most of the students didn't heed his warning, they quieted down and pulled their bottles inside their jackets. The police car stopped next to a student walking on the side of the road.
After a conversation lasting about 10 seconds, the car drove off and the student continued walking.
"They're after everybody," Arrington said as the car drove off. "It's not like they want to help people that are in trouble."
Police and city officials say officers in Radford are just looking out for the safety of students and other residents in the city by keeping a close eye on the party scene and the alcohol consumption that comes with it.
Students say police have nothing better to do than harass them and have created an atmosphere of fear, resentment and paranoia amongst a population that just wants to have a good time.
Student complaints about heavy-handed police officers led to multiple forums on the topic and discussions between the administration, the police and the city government.
There's even a new system by which students can lodge complaints against city police without leaving campus. University and city officials have gone on ride-alongs with the police this fall. That offer has been extended to students as well.
This student-police dynamic isn't new to Radford University, nor is it particularly unique for a college town.
But the numbers don't lie.
Arrests and citations for alcohol violations nearly doubled during the first two months of this school year compared with this past year. The reasons for that increase depend on who you ask.
Sifting through rumors
Radford Police Capt. Jim Lawson said student-police relations are much better today than they were 20 years ago.
He explains the increase in arrests by pointing out that the department received a $75,000 grant to curb underage drinking. The grant allows more officers to work overtime duty on weekend nights.
In addition, the 34-officer force is finally at full complement after being six officers down this past year. Five officers typically patrol Radford's East End during the summer. That number increases to seven or eight during the school year, he said.
"We have to, because the call volume is so high, with a regular shift we can't handle all of them," he said.
Lawson said officers break up any parties where money is being taken at the door. Plain-clothes officers have also simply walked into parties then shut them down and arrested people.
This tactic particularly riles students and is proof, they say, that officers are out looking for trouble, not simply concerned with public safety.
Arrington recalled how an undercover officer tried to get into a party he was hosting earlier this year. The officer walked toward the front door of the house and was about to walk in when Arrington confronted him.
"Whoa, where are you going?" he told the officer. "I don't know you."
The officer told him he just wanted to have some fun, but Arrington refused to let him in.
"What about now? Can I come in now?" he then said, producing a badge.
Arrington still didn't let him in, but he was written up for a noise violation.
Stories like Arrington's are common among students. Some say police wait outside bars and look for the slightest stumble or trip. Others say they've been pulled over for no reason other than being young and driving late at night.
Police and city officials point to incidents in years past of gunshots being fired at student parties, transh bins being set on fire and what they describe as a "near riot" during a recent Quadfest, an annual spring music festival at Radford.
"I feel like things have just gotten out of hand here," Radford senior John Hickey said of the police presence. "There's drinking and parties, but nothing that you don't get in any college town. It's not endemic of Radford."
In Hickey's five years at the school, he's seen a significant downturn in the party scene, he said. But that hasn't stopped police from racking up even more alcohol violations.
He said he understands why the university would be concerned about its reputation as a party school, but the social scene attracts students to school, too.
If the trend continues, he thinks it will eventually drive students away.
"This isn't Harvard," he said."People come here to have a good time."
Blame the new president?
Hickey is one of several students who believe new Radford University President Penny Kyle is behind a crackdown on partying. But Kyle said she didn't even know it was an issue until receiving an e-mail from Student Government Association President Stephanie Harmon.
"None of us had required that the city police in any way, shape or form change their procedures from prior years," she said.
"We have no authority to tell the police force what to do."
But proper police conduct does concern City Manager Tony Cox.
He's heard the rumors and said one reason the city has equipped most of its police cars with cameras is to get the true story behind some of the complaints. Forums and discussions this fall have helped quell some of the controversy, he said.
Part of the problem is that the student population is so transient that students themselves don't have the context to know how much enforcement is necessary and if it is, in fact, getting worse.
"A lot of what we're dealing with is rumor and stories that are passed on from person to person," he said.
Radford Vice Mayor Bruce Brown has taught courses at Radford University and heard plenty of stories. He said for the most part, students can steer clear of trouble if they're not obvious or confrontational.
Since he came to the city in 1994, he said the situation has improved and should continue to improve with current Police Chief Gary Harmon.
"I don't think these perceptions are completely out of left field, but they are being addressed," Brown said.
At a student forum this fall, Kyle tried to dispel additional rumors that she would cancel Quadfest. Last year, more than 400 people were arrested or received citations from police, mostly for being drunk in public.
After the event, the police department said they hoped the school would cancel the event.
Radford student Chris Henderson said a big deal was made about Quadfest, but a similar drunken crowd comes to Blacksburg every time Virginia Tech hosts a football game.
"Who's the victim here?"
While Virginia Tech football games attract huge crowds of visitors, they don't generate the 400-plus citations that occurred in Radford last spring.
Blacksburg Police Chief Bill Brown credits a good rapport with students to communication that begins with discussions police have with freshmen during orientation.
That interaction during a nonthreatening situation helps set the tone for the way students view police in town, he said.
"We're downtown to make sure your good time is not inhibited," is the message Brown hopes to impart to students.
Brown has been police chief for 12 years and part of the Blacksburg Police Department for 35 years.
If there's a problem -- be it a noise violation, a fight or someone who could cause harm to themselves or others -- that's a concern of the police. Officers aren't out looking for trouble.
The Thursday night after the Tech-Boston College game there was plenty of drinking in and around bars downtown.
One student was slouched outside of a downtown bar, unable to walk on his own. Just as a police officer got out of his car and began approaching him, two of his friends picked him up and said they were taking him home.
The officer got back in his car and drove off.
"I want individual officers who can use good judgment. In this particular case he was convinced that these two people were going to take care of him," Brown said.
"For situations like this you have to ask yourself, 'Who's the victim here?' "
While there were 389 alcohol violations this past August and September in Radford, Blacksburg only saw 342 such violations in the entire 2004 calendar year.
"My people would not walk in your yard and look in the window to see what's going on," Brown said. "That's a no-no."
But that's something that Radford students complain about and Lawson said is perfectly legal.
If an officer is called out somewhere for a noise violation and sees someone through a window who looks underage with a beer in his hand, he can go inside and ask for that person's identification.
But Lawson insists that his officers are "not Gestapo-types," and most of the students get along fine with the police.
While Radford junior Jeff Hagy has heard the student rumors and even witnessed some instances where police were aggressive, he said such behavior is the exception, not the rule.
"If you're cool with the cops, most of the time they're gonna be cool with you," he said.
Just as Hagy said most officers are reasonable despite the rumors, Radford officer C.F. Bond said unruly students are a small minority in Radford. Standing in front of the 7-Eleven on Tyler Avenue about 11 p.m., he said it would be impossible for officers to go after every student who was intoxicated.
But anyone who is arrested is obviously going to be unhappy with the police and help perpetuate rumors.
"Ninety-nine percent of them show respect," Bond said of the students. "But some of them, because of these rumors, are scared to death of me."
Even though he's been with the Radford police for 26 years, Lawson said he hasn't forgotten what it's like to be young.
The fact is there are certain laws the police have to enforce in the city.
"It's not like we weren't all young once ourselves," he said. "People have asked me if I drank when I was underage. I tell them, 'Yeah, but I didn't do it in the middle of a town full of cops.' I knew it was illegal."