Hilary Moss

June 27, 2008

In the early hours of May 16, about 200 students gathered outside in Middletown, Conn., to celebrate the end of the semester at Wesleyan University. The crowd chatted and drank as friends said goodbye to each other and seniors anticipated graduation. Around 1:30 a.m., when local police officers couldn’t clear the street after several announcements to “go home,” they used Taser guns and canines to disperse the crowd. Five students were arrested on charges ranging from inciting a riot to possession of marijuana.

The Wesleyan incident sheds light on the significance of city-university relations, an issue most colleges must deal with throughout the year–especially when students are throwing a bunch of parties. Local police departments sometimes use force to break up gatherings, a questionable move when there is a lack of understanding between students and law enforcement. In contrast, at a school like Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., where students and the East Lansing police department work together, both groups are moving towards a cohesive plan for dealing with parties that keeps everyone’s safety in mind.

Most members of the Wesleyan community viewed the police’s actions as excessive force. “I got pepper sprayed, Tasered, and [tackled] to the ground,” recalled Ian Trancynger, 21, one of the arrested students. “I heard warnings that we should leave, but it never came to my mind that [police] officers employed by the state are going to attack a bunch of kids on the street.”

Wesleyan has a public safety department, and the campus’ officers are provided by a private security company. Campus public safety employees are not trained police officers and therefore lack the authority to make arrests or use force in situations other than in self-defense. This is common practice at private institutions like Wesleyan, which decide at their discretion whether to have a police department on campus. “We call whenever we have a situation that we feel like we’re unable to control, like when we need assistance at a party,” said Wesleyan’s Director of Public Safety Dave Meyer. “We also call for burglary, burglary-in-progress, assault, robbery or other serious incidents based on the situation.”

On May 16, Meyer’s officers decided they needed the Middletown police department’s help. That night, approximately 15 police cars, including squads from two nearby cities and the Connecticut State Police, lined the street. Witnesses reported a high level of antagonism between students and the officers; numerous students reported seeing a beer can thrown at the first police car to arrive on the scene. “But I wouldn’t call the scene a riot. We were angry the police were there, but we weren’t doing anything violent. I think there were a bunch of ways they could have dealt with us” Trancynger said.

Trancynger said he would have expected public safety to deal with the crowd better because they are more familiar with its constituents. However, Middletown Deputy Police Chief Patrick McMahon pointed out that students were congregated in a city street. “Even if Wesleyan had its own police department, it was still a city issue,” he said. “Even if that street is surrounded by Wesleyan property and buildings, it’s still a city street. As far as whether or not the current police/public safety situation is serving Wesleyan…well, that’s up to them to decide.”

This incident illustrates the tension schools and police departments face when deciding what kind of force is appropriate and when. Many Wesleyan students believed that the university’s public safety officers could have done a better job of intervening, and had they been present, might have defended them in the face of the Middletown police’s tactics. Some, like Trancynger, even think that the police officers targeted students on the last night of school to avoid controversy, claiming there were several large-scale parties during the semester that were ignored by law enforcement.

Using force on college students isn’t new. In the ’60s and ’70s, most college events that required police presence were political protests. But today, most college events requiring police presence are parties or “convivial gatherings” as described by professors John D. McCarthy, Andrew Martin, and Clark McPhail a sociological essay published in Social Problems. The authors found that the lack of social organization, or no specific event leader, at large parties poses a threat to police officers. The lack of a leader and the presence of alcohol mean the police are more likely to use methods of escalated force.

Wesleyan may be able to look to MSU in East Lansing, Mich., a school that is still grappling with an incident that happened on campus this spring. In contrast to Wesleyan, public schools fall under state jurisdiction so MSU’s university officers are trained police. On April 5, 3,000 to 4,000 people jammed the Cedar Village apartment complex creating what was later classified as a riot. East Lansing and MSU police launched 24 smoke grenades, 20 flash bangs, 20 stingball grenades, and 13 rounds of tear gas. The official police report said 52 MSU students were arrested.

Despite the demonstration of force, some students think the actions of the police officers were warranted in this case. “For the most part, students seemed receptive to how police handled the situation,” remarked MSU student Jacob Carpenter, 19. “The only complaint that I heard was that the warning they were going to fire tear gas was not loud enough…I think they were very restrained as opposed to in previous years.”

This spring wasn’t the first time a party got out of control at MSU. In 2005, The East Lansing police department responded to a disturbance involving 3,000 people after MSU’s basketball team lost in the NCAA playoffs. A group of officers from East Lansing, MSU, and other areas set off 299 rounds of tear gas while wearing riot gear. As a result, students, residents, local officials, professors and the ACLU formed a commission to make recommendations on how to deal with future crowd control.

According to East Lansing Police Chief Tom Wibert, officers kept the commission’s recommendations in mind during the incident this April. “One of the recommendations was that we don’t start out the night in riot gear, so this time, we started out in our regular uniforms. After the crowd took the street and glass was flying, we put on helmets, but kept our padding off. We learned to think about how we are viewed,” Wibert said.

There is no proof that the use of tactics like tear gas on college campuses is increasing, but we can learn from the rare instances where the community perceives police force as getting out of control. According to Jerry M. Lewis, professor of sociology at Ohio’s Kent State University, it’s an age-old problem. “Look at histories of universities–students have been clashing with townspeople since the 1600s,” Lewis said. “It’s a lifestyle clash. Parties don’t start until 11 at night and the workingman has to go to work. It’s a tough problem to solve.”

Lewis attributes some of the recent interest in police presence at parties to the omnipresence of technology. “Nowadays if anything happens it’s going to be recorded,” Lewis explained. Wesleyan students and Public Safety officers recorded the May 16 events using handheld cameras, and footage of April 5 at MSU can be viewed on YouTube.

While there might not be a trend, the incidents at Wesleyan and MSU have shown how easy it is to cross the line between a peaceful gathering and what police officers classify as a riot. Nearly every college student has a story about the time cops crashed a party, but perhaps it’s time to seriously consider the repercussions. “It’s a wake up call,” Trancynger said. “It pops the college bubble a little bit.” University students at Wesleyan–and across the country–will have to communicate with local law enforcers and the community at large to maintain student safety.

Hilary Moss is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University and emeritus editor-in-chief of The Wesleyan Argus.