In Calming the March Madness, ELPD Has Changed Tactics

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 8:45 am
Alice Dreger

A fire burns in Cedar Village Sunday night following Michigan State University's victory in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

East Lansing police reports that two Michigan State University students were arrested Sunday night in the public partying that followed MSU’s upset of Duke in the NCAA basketball championship tournament. Just after the game, a crowd of between 600 and 800 people gathered in the usual place – Cedar Village – a fire was set, glass bottles were being thrown in the air, and police had to break up the scene.

Eleven additional fires were set around East Lansing, again mostly in the usual places – the student-rental areas of the Bailey neighborhood. Crowds did not assemble around those fires.

According to ELPD’s Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez, no one was hurt in these “civil disturbances.” The two men arrested are both 20, one from Marshall, Michigan, and the other from Ada, Michigan. Both were charged with open alcohol violations.

Based on an in-depth interview with Gonzalez this week, it appears that patterns of big-event partying at MSU haven’t changed that much over the past 20 years. But what has changed is how ELPD approaches potential and actual “civil disturbances” like the one Sunday night.

That shift in tactics, combined with the message “you don’t want to ruin your life with a criminal record,” seems to be having a positive effect – reducing police-civilian clashes, the numbers of arrests, and the potential for injuries and property damage.

No more lines of cops in riot gear

It’s not that ELPD has fewer officers out than in years past, when post-game trouble is anticipated. In fact, ELPD had plenty of officers, including plenty from neighboring jurisdictions, deployed on Sunday night.

In addition to having 20 more ELPD officers working than on the usual Sunday night shift, assistance came in from the Ingham County Regional Special Response Team. That team includes officers from the police forces of East Lansing, MSU, Meridian Township, and Ingham County. Officers from the State Police also came in to help.

But the approach taken was not the old-school line of officers in full riot gear.

Gonzalez tells ELi, “Over the years, policing tactics have radically changed. We used to operate as a mobile field force, with upwards of thirty to forty officers all geared up, in riot gear, in one single line that moved toward the crowd with shields and sticks. While that approach still exists, we don’t employ that here.”

He explains that the approach used now employs “small squads – small groups of officers who can engage the crowd at a face-to-face level with a lower level of force.” These squads are sent into the crowds when officers see things starting to turn dangerous – “when we see property destruction, or the need to protect public safety.”

Says Gonzalez, officers work to remember why the crowds are out: they are not there primarily to be dangerous or destructive, but, in Gonzalez’s words, “to celebrate a win or celebrate a season for an MSU sports team. That being said, we also have to keep in mind that when you have thousands of people together in close proximity, it’s very easy for a mob mentality or groupthink to take over and go south.”

Gonzalez (above) was out on Sunday night, and says he saw people starting to throw things into the air. Some of that was just paper products: harmless. But when glass bottles – including a bottle that could hold a fifth of liquor – started to be tossed up over people’s heads, and a fire was set, that’s when the police needed to act.

“Once the fire (near Cedar Village) was started, we organized the squad quickly and had them inserted into the crowd to circle the fire and keep people back,” says Gonzalez. “We had two objectives. We didn’t want people to fall or get pushed into the fire, but we also wanted to eliminate the chance of people throwing things in to let the fire get bigger.”

That move of officers created a separation of the crowd into an east and west side. “Then our other officers could walk through the crowd and ask them to leave. Once some started to walk away, that’s when everything fizzled out. The incident was over.”

Seeing two people get arrested also encouraged others to leave. Says Gonzalez, “We have to be mindful many people in these crowds are just bystanders. They just want to see what’s going to happen, if anything.”

Gonzalez describes Sunday night’s approach as “a very soft approach that works well with crowds of the size we had – six to eight hundred people.”

But, he says, “a tactic like that may not work well with five to seven thousand people.”

Sunday night’s weather helped: it was cold enough to make staying outside uncomfortable. This coming weekend, the weather is likely to be warmer. That means the a greater potential for trouble.

The importance of advance work

In our interview, Gonzalez made clear there’s a great deal of planning that goes into preparing for potential “civil disturbances” like those that sometimes break out during football season, during March Madness, and on St. Patrick’s Day.

“It is very labor-intensive and personnel-intensive to plan for and prepare for large groups of crowds,” says Gonzalez.

When there’s potential for big trouble, ELPD works with other departments to arrange in advance a large increase of officer presence in East Lansing. Staffing templates are deployed and adjusted according to risk factors, and small squads of officers are organized to work together in teams.

This coming Saturday night, when MSU is scheduled to play Texas Tech, more than 100 police officers will be working in a city that normally has five ELPD officers working per shift.

“To do that and do it effectively,” Gonzalez says, “we have to lean on officers from all over.” He anticipates help from the county sheriff offices’ of Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham, from the Lansing Police Department, the Michigan State Police, and MSU Police.

This help is available through mutual aid agreements. The costs of ELPD staffing will be borne by city taxpayers. The cost of having the other officers’ work will be borne by the taxpayers who fund their jobs.

Below: Special Deputy Rob VanWessum and Luciano have served in East Lansing voluntarily.

Ingham County’s volunteer mounted deputies are also expected to be helping out Saturday night, and officers from East Lansing’s PACE (Parking and Code Enforcement) will be used as extra eyes and ears for ELPD.

“We task PACE with keeping an eye on areas where we might not be able to have (police) officers frequent. But we also ask them to keep an eye out for furniture or debris that looks like it has been stockpiled so that it can be dragged out and burned.” If PACE sees those kinds of piles, an alert is called into the patrol supervisor “so they can address it accordingly.”

Gonzalez also says that the City of East Lansing, MSU, and ELPD work hard to challenge the idea that burning a couch on one of these days is some kind of “rite of passage” for MSU students.

“We want people to understand the risk they are exposing themselves to when they decide they want to be part of a so-called tradition of burning a couch at MSU. A criminal record will stay with them, and will matter when they graduate and go on to seek employment," he said.

Gonzalez notes that MSU also sends out the message that disciplinary action may mean no graduation, no degree.

But those messages don’t work on everybody, and are typically forgotten by those who have become intoxicated. While officers we speak with want MSU to win, they’re also realistic about the costs and dangers that come with the Spartans’ inclusion in the Final Four.

“Whenever the basketball team makes it to the Final Four,” says Gonzalez, “we have significant concerns.”

Saturday’s game is scheduled to start just before 9 p.m. The late hour, says Gonzalez, adds risk.

The NCAA schedules it late with the goal of maximizing viewers. Here in East Lansing, the home of MSU, the goal of the police will be to minimize harm.


Update, 10:15 a.m: MSU and ELPD have now issued a joint news release reminding students of the consequences of illegal actions.


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