Party foul

City targets unruly gatherings, opponents say ordinance hands police too much power

Shootings. Stabbings. Sexual assaults. These crimes are happening too frequently in Chico, and too often they are byproducts of the party scene in student neighborhoods.

Then there are the parties themselves, which sometimes grow so big they’re out of control, creating chaotic events that “suck up 100 percent of police resources” on some weekends, as Mayor Mark Sorensen said during the regular City Council meeting Tuesday (Dec. 15).

As part of the city’s ongoing effort to better control the situation, the council made a significant change to the city’s noise ordinance and also tossed out its previous Disorderly Events Ordinance and replaced it with a new Unruly Gatherings Ordinance.

Both changes made at Tuesday’s meeting give police more authority to act when they see illegal behavior. They also establish more significant penalties meant to discourage such behavior in the first place.

The update to the noise ordinance means that henceforth police officers who encounter noise at “unreasonable levels” will be able to act immediately, without having to wait for a complaint to be made.

In addition, police will now be able to treat repeated noise violations (two in 30 days) as a misdemeanor, rather than a citation. Property owners who don’t live in the house that is the source of the noise will only be issued citations, however.

Nearly 20 people addressed the council on the matter. Some, like former Mayor Dan Herbert, representing the Student Affairs Office at Chico State, said it would add a useful tool to police tool boxes.

Many speakers were concerned, however, that the ordinance placed too much subjective authority in police hands and could be used to stifle the artistic expression of local musicians and harm their livelihoods. “Where do we draw the line here?” asked William Capet. “Why not focus on the real [criminal] issues?”

Police Lt. Rob Merrifield said officers “wouldn’t be going around town with their windows rolled down listening for parties.”

The amendment passed 4-2, with Councilmembers Tami Ritter and Randall Stone opposed. Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer was absent.

Live music was also a concern during discussion of the Unruly Gatherings Ordinance.

The ordinance defines an unruly gathering as one with 20 or more people that has become “too disruptive or threatens the health and safety of those in attendance, responding officers or neighbors.”

Possible characteristics of such a gathering include “excessive noise, public drunkenness, serving alcohol to minors, fighting, urinating in public, hanging out on rooftops, vandalism and crowds overflowing into yards, sidewalks or streets,” according to the staff report.

The problem with the existing Disorderly Events Ordinance, Merrifield told the council, is that it doesn’t hold anyone accountable. “We could go back the next night, and there would be another big party,” he said. “There was no deterrence.”

As with the noise-ordinance amendment, this ordinance gives greater subjective authority to police officers to decide when a gathering has become unruly. If they see any of the behaviors listed above, or get three or more complaints, they can intervene to disband the gathering and issue citations to or arrest offenders.

A second unruly gathering at the same location within 14 days would result in misdemeanor charges. Nonresident property owners would be subject to citation if, after being notified of the problem, they failed to stop further misbehavior.

Some were concerned that a reference to “amplified music and DJs” as elements of unruliness could lead to police infringement on musicians’ artistic expression and livelihoods.

Once that provision had been deleted from the proposed ordinance, and another was added stating that it wasn’t the city’s intention to apply it to peaceful gatherings, the ordinance passed 4-2, again with Stone and Ritter dissenting.

During a break, Stone said he voted nay because he thought the ordinance gave police too much discretion. “It’s an overreach,” he said.