What Made This Year's Post-Game Crowd Experience Different?

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Thursday, April 25, 2019, 8:26 am
Brad Minor

The usual sort of crowd gathered at Cedar Village after Michigan State's Final Four loss to Texas Tech on April 6. But this time around, there was a smaller crowd, quicker dispersal, and very little property damage compared to previous years.

At least some of that was the result of planning and strategy on the part of local law enforcement.

To better understand how police handled the crowds, I spoke with East Lansing’s Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez. Gonzalez thought the calm response had a lot to do with how the game finished.

“Generally, when they lose by a very small margin or win by a very small margin, there are problems,” Gonzalez said.

That didn’t happen this time, as MSU lost by ten points.

But the relatively positive outcome from the gathering also probably had a lot to do with police preparation and response.

How use of a platoon system has changed ELPD crowd control:

The way police officers conduct crowd control has changed a lot over the last two decades.

Gonzalez (below), who started with ELPD in 1997, was on duty the night of the notorious 1999 riots following MSU’s loss to Duke. But that hasn’t been his only experience with unruly post-game crowds.

“We’ve had a lot of practice throughout the years,” he joked during our interview.

Gonzalez explained that instead of operating as one large contingent, officers now operate in a platoon system. Each platoon has about four squads of eight officers, including an embedded supervisor.

Previously the police officers conducting crowd control after MSU games operated as one big unit. Gonzales said this made them slower to respond and less capable of dealing with multiple incidents. He said that kind of crowd control still exists, but only for what he called “large scale, true riots.”

By contrast, the squads move freely, and can be called back together as part of the larger force if necessary. This seems to work well in an urban setting like East Lansing, where there could be fires and other incidents happening in several different parts of town.

Most platoons working in East Lansing after the Texas Tech game were comprised of officers from several jurisdictions, including ELPD, the Ingham County Sheriff’s office, and MSUPD. Gonzales explained that the State Police, who also came to help, are the exception to this mixed-platoon approach, because they train together and prefer to work together using their standardized processes.

On April 6, several of the platoons had an officer embedded with them who was filming throughout the night. This serves two goals: police accountability and gathering of evidence in the event a prosecution is later conducted.

The new platoon style of crowd management was taught to the ELPD officers by FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness. Gonzalez said FEMA helps train local law enforcement in small-squad tactics at a training center in Anniston, Alabama. FEMA handles the training because they have the funding to provide it, something many small police departments lack.

Gonzalez also said that ELPD has started to provide some specialized training to other departments. Few areas in Michigan have the crowd control experience that East Lansing has accumulated. Officers from as far away as New Braunfels, Texas, were in East Lansing the night of the Final Four game to observe the tactics used.

Planning and reality:

Gonzalez said one of the biggest factors in determining the outcome of a night like April 6 is planning.

“We have a template we work from.”

Plans exist for the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the Final 4, as each event calls for somewhat different approaches. ELPD and surrounding departments take what they learn each year to improve future response.

That kind of data collection and experience dictated where the officers were placed before the Texas Tech game. By the time the buzzer sounded, there was relatively heavy police presence in and around Cedar Village.

As the crowd began to swell, platoons worked to make sure things didn't get out of hand. One platoon was sent into the cul-de-sac at Cedar Village, and the crowd surrounded the officers. Gonzalez said proximity to law enforcement helped keep the crowd in check.

There were also officers in the downtown area, ready for a mass exodus when the bars closed, but there turned out to be no significant disturbance there.

On top of having to do crowd control on a big game night, ELPD still has to perform their regular duties of patrolling and responding to “regular” calls. Gonzalez called it an “all hands-on deck” night, with all available officers working.

That night also saw additional support for East Lansing from the Meridian Township, Dewitt, Lansing, and Lansing Township Police Departments. Gonzalez estimates there were about 200 officers total in East Lansing that night.

The whole law enforcement team was directed from a command center in East Lansing, with ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes in charge. Had the crowds moved to the campus side of Grand River Avenue, MSUPD Chief Kelly Roudebush would have immediately stepped in to oversee operations.

At a pre-game meeting at East Lansing’s High School, officers were told to expect to deal with between three and five thousand people. The crowds actually ended up being about fifteen hundred people at most.

During that briefing, officers were given directions on how to deal with the crowd.

“You have to realize that most of the people that were out that night were kids celebrating their team. It was important the officers realized that, for the most part, they were going to be dealing with peaceful individuals,” Gonzalez said.

A chief tactic used by the police was to keep everybody moving. When asked what he would remember most about the evening, Gonzalez said it was the moment he knew that technique had been noticed by some in the crowd.

“The platoons were walking basically behind the crowd, to keep them moving, and at one point a guy said to his buddy, ‘The cops are just going to keep us walking all night until we go home,’ and I kind of chuckled.”

Officers opted to make minimal arrests, and did what Gonzalez calls “targeted enforcement.”

“Basically, we were monitoring the crowds, picking out the troublemakers who were agitating people, and removing them from the situation,” he said.

Compared to years past, the monetary damage to property was very low.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage was caused during the 1999 riots. Gonzalez estimated the damage in the hundreds of dollars this year, with the only notable damage being two street signs ripped from the ground.

Overall, the Deputy Chief said, the night was a success. The event lasted about an hour and a half, and the crowd dispersed relatively quickly. He said he hopes to take what he's learned this year and, as in years past, incorporate it into next year's plan.


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