Police use Internet to find parties

When Ashley Chown walked up the stairs to her apartment last Tuesday noon (Oct. 30), she was thinking about the pre-Halloween party she was throwing that night. She was startled to find a police officer at her door.

She asked hesitantly if there was a problem.

“Are you Ashley or Kim?” the officer asked.

“I’m Ashley. Why, what’s going on?”

“Well, Ashley, where do you plan to live after Thanksgiving break?”

“In there,” she said pointing to the door of her apartment.

“Well, if you have that party tonight,” the cop said, pointing to a flier for her party printed off Facebook.com, “you can expect to receive eviction notices next week.”

Chown’s party was busted—nine hours before it started.

The Chico Police Department has used and will continue to use sites like Facebook and MySpace to search for potentially illegal activity and stop problems before they start, Lt. Mike Weber said.

Weber has worked for the department since 1976. Halloween was not such a concern for police 30 years ago. This year, he was the incident commander for the holiday.

When he started on the force, one officer patrolled the north side and one patrolled the south, and it was safe, he said. Five to six years ago, Chico police had to call in reinforcements and had upwards of 450 police officers and 200 California Highway Patrol officers to quell 15,000 to 20,000 alcohol-fueled Halloween partiers.

Since then, the police and the city of Chico have made an effort through increased enforcement and media campaigns to control the festivities. This year, part of that control was making “pre-party contacts” with people known to be planning events with the potential for illegal activity occurring.

“It’s called crime prevention,” Weber said. “If I can avoid people getting arrested, I will.”

The police find out about these events not only through the Internet but through property managers as well, Weber said.

Chown’s party had 95 confirmed guests on Facebook, and she said it was to be hosted by the whole complex. In their leases, each tenant is allowed 12 guests, so she thought there would be no problem, noting that the party was invitation only and that it would have bouncers to keep it private.

“There are parties here almost every night,” Chown said. “I don’t understand why just because it’s Halloween the police or my landlord would be looking on Facebook to break up a party.”

Weber said he personally made at least one pre-party contact on Halloween. A party on Chestnut Street met the requirements for the “preventive, proactive approach.”

There, 2-by-4s had been zip-tied onto the fence and black plastic sheeting stretched around to create a 10-foot-tall barrier from the sidewalk and the front yard. Signs adorned the sheeting that read “Private Party” and “Invite Only.”

Weber told the organizers that this alone was a code-enforcement issue, but his real concern was, again, a Facebook flier. It advertised $5 wristbands, which made the party a commercial enterprise, thus illegal without the proper licenses.

The creator of the Facebook flier, Brandon Brown, was upset but more disappointed than anything else.

“It’s a bummer to do all this work to have a controlled, private party,” he said. “Then, before it even starts, cops tell you that you’ll be arrested if you have it.”

Brown was not pleased to hear that his party was illegal, Weber said, but he was receptive. The sheeting was taken down and the party cancelled.

Of course, all the people who planned on attending these parties that got busted early partied somewhere else. So the effectiveness of the pre-party contacts is hard to measure.

This year, Halloween was busier than last, Weber said. There were around 100 arrests over the weekend and a quarter of that number on Halloween night.

But for Weber, the effectiveness is not measured by the number of arrests made, but rather by the fact that parties with potential for illegal activities were averted.

He left this advice for students: “If you’re going to have a party, have it inside or out back.”

He continued: “Partying is fine. We’re not against partying. We’re against illegal activity, so be responsible.”