School’s in session
That means it’s party time! Chico police hit the streets
It’s the last Thursday night before the first day of school at Chico State. With the rumble of muffled bass and the clamor of a thoroughly inebriated crowd being heard a mere block from campus, 10 officers from the Chico Police Department stand in a half-circle around the tail end of a police cruiser in an unlit parking lot.
One of the officers is loading rounds of pepper-spray balls into what looks like a particularly formidable paintball gun. Parties this size can quickly become riots, Officer Ryon Mitchell explains. If the party-goers get out of control, as they often do on this weekend every year (Thursday is, after all, the start of the weekend for many in Chico), shooting rounds full of pepper spray into the crowd is a good last resort.
Everyone involved hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“We try to make our way in and get everyone to leave voluntarily,” Mitchell said during this reporter’s police ride-along. “Then we’ll try to make it to where the music is being played. Once the music is turned off, there goes the fun and they get tired of being there. You’ve got to hit ’em where it hurts.”
The officers begin to fan out as they make their way to an apartment complex near the corner of Oak and West Third streets. Students spilling out onto the street can see them coming and raise the alarm, but the crowd is far too large for word to spread in time for any widespread reaction.
Covering the apartment-building parking lot is a shoulder-to-shoulder ocean of students, producing plumes of pot smoke and the overpowering smell of cheap body spray. An unidentifiable song is blasting from one of the apartments, and a group of students has found a perch above the crowd in a truck bed where they appear to be drinking themselves to oblivion.
For the most part, the officers’ presence doesn’t cause a panic. A male student wearing a white cut-off T-shirt and carrying an oversized longboard casually walks past the cluster of cops and puts an arm around a blonde girl he may or may not know.
“Hey there, little lady,” he says, leading her down the sidewalk and away from the party.
The team splits up, with several officers penetrating the crowd of roughly 500 in search of the source of music, while several others hang back to manage the foot traffic that would soon block Oak Street entirely. Sgt. Scott Ruppel provides a commanding presence and makes sure everyone gets the picture.
“Party’s over,” he says to approaching students with his arms crossed over his chest. “You might as well just turn around now.”
There is a tense moment after the music is shut down, and it looks like things might get ugly. The crowd begins a chant of “Chi-co! Chi-co!” that becomes an indistinguishable roar, and red plastic cups are raised to the night sky in a fervor. The officers hold their ground, however, and the students disperse without prompting them to use their pepper-ball gun.
It takes about 15 minutes for the officers to break up the party, and they manage to do so without making any arrests. It’s shortly after 11 p.m., so Mitchell and the rest of the downtown patrol have a long night of regulating the streets ahead of them.
While the party might be over for some, one apartment tenant finds a half-empty jug of Captain Morgan rum amid the empty boxes of Keystone Light and trampled beer cans, and retreats indoors with his prize, exclaiming, “Dudes, I found a handle! I found a handle!”
The party scene is particularly wild at the beginning of the school year. That’s because the south-campus area becomes inundated with incoming freshmen who are taking full advantage of their first weeks away from their parents, Mitchell explained.
“Freshmen finally get away from mom and dad and feel like they can get away with anything,” he said. “It’s kind of an educational experience. Those students find out real quick that they can get into trouble. Generally, your problem people are not your third- or fourth-year students.”
Thursday was just the tip of the iceberg. Parties in the south-campus area reached a chaotic level and kept officers busy through the weekend. On Monday (Aug. 23), Sgt. Rob Merrifield noted that this school year has begun in an alarmingly violent fashion. Two parties on Ivy Street on Saturday were declared “disorderly events” (allowing police to issue citations to those in attendance if they didn’t leave willingly) after beer bottles were thrown at mounted-patrol officers.
Merrifield, a veteran with the department who was not on patrol over the weekend, has had plenty of first-hand experience with that type of activity during his tenure as a patrol officer.
“Some years, you go out and there’s a ton of people walking around, but they’re being cool and cooperative,” he said. “Other years, they’re being more violent and aggressive. It’s a creepy feeling standing in the dark and having a bottle you don’t see coming whiz by your head.”
When students are simply having a good time and staying out of the streets, police try to leave them alone, Mitchell said. Typical reasons for a police response include a noise complaint and open containers of alcohol on public property, which includes sidewalks and streets in front of houses.
While he understands students are trying to experience Chico nightlife, Mitchell urges them to drink in moderation to avoid serious trouble.
“Alcohol has a lot to do with the majority of crimes,” he said. “It generates the noise complaints, the fights, the inability to care for oneself, the rapes and other sexual assaults.”