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Responses to the Problem of Student Party Riots

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation for addressing your particular problem of student party riots. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it, especially students and university officials. Appendix B contains a strategic planning form that can be used to help structure the selection of your responses.

General Considerations for an Effective Action Plan

Each of the following specific response strategies has been used to prevent or substantially reduce harms associated with university student gatherings. However, none has been rigorously evaluated. This means we cannot yet reliably determine which strategies are most effective in particular circumstances. We do know that successful prevention has consistently required a combination of multiple strategies.

You should consider various points of intervention and methods of reducing opportunities for misconduct when you decide what combination of strategies to use in your community. As discussed earlier, gatherings consist of five stages (see earlier figure). Each stage presents us with an opportunity for intervention. Within each stage, you can consider five methods of reducing opportunities for illegal behavior (see Appendix B). You can prevent or reduce harm by increasing the effort and risk involved, and reducing the rewards gained, in committing an offense. In addition, you should reduce factors that provoke people to commit crimes, as well as remove excuses that students can use to justify their criminal behaviors.§

§ To learn more about techniques for opportunity reduction, see Clarke and Eck (2005).

A comprehensive strategy consists of three key components:

  1. Implementing interventions at each of the five gathering stages
  2. Using a variety of opportunity-reduction techniques at each stage
  3. Developing multiple partnerships, particularly with the university

After any intervention to prevent a disturbance, you should convene an after-action meeting that includes representatives of the police, the university, and other involved organizations. This will allow you to exchange information about what worked and what didn't. You can use this meeting to develop an after-action report. The after-action report should include qualitative information gathered in the meeting, as well as quantitative measures of disturbance-prevention outcomes. In addition, you can use the strategic planning framework presented in appendix B to structure a process evaluation and identify the most effective interventions. You should then use this information to improve your jurisdiction's strategy for dealing with student party riots.

Responses to Student Party Riots

Each strategy is presented under the intervention point at which it is most likely to be applied. As you tailor your specific response, you might find that your strategy is best applied at a different stage, or that the length of intervention will expand beyond the implementation stage.

Initial Planning

1. Creating a multiagency task force. A critical part of any planned response to student party riots involves the building of partnerships with other community stakeholders.[26] This allows police to access a greater range of resources and expertise. You are likely to find that your university has already established partnerships with various community groups, thus reducing the time it will take to put the task force together.

A major partner must be the university or college the students attend. University officials' reactions are likely to vary from being extremely cooperative to denying that they can do anything to prevent the disturbances. Like many other organizations that have a stake in a problem, universities sometimes assert that the problem is solely that of the police, that they lack the authority to do anything, or that the participants are not associated with them. This is especially likely if the problem is new. Universities may also feign cooperation, but do nothing substantive.

Also, universities are best considered as clusters of communities rather than hierarchical organizations. So even if you obtain cooperation from one group of university officials, this does not necessarily mean all other university groups will be supportive or will not oppose engaging in efforts to prevent another disturbance. However, universities are vulnerable to the negative publicity student party riots can bring, and officials will likely be pressured to do something to prevent a future disturbance.

Partnering with the university and others will help to clarify roles and responsibilities[27] and, in turn, help ensure a more effective implementation of proposed interventions. A student disturbance task force may include members from:

  • The local police
  • The university police or security
  • The university administration
  • Student groups
  • Local residents and businesses
  • Landlords
  • The university faculty or researchers

2. Requiring students to get a permit to host a gathering. Officials can impose pre-defined restrictions on gatherings by requiring students to get a permit before hosting a gathering for more than a few friends. Many cities have passed ordinances to help control and oversee the details of large gatherings, ordinances that can easily be extended to cover student gatherings (if they do not already).§

§ The city of Blacksburg, Virginia, has adopted a mass-gathering ordinance that requires applicants to get a permit in advance. Applicants must register sound-amplifying equipment, provide the name of the property owner for the location of the event, list the number of people expected to attend, and demonstrate plans for toilet facilities, noise mitigation, and cleanup. They must also provide evidence that there will be a sufficient number of monitors to help resolve problems that may arise. In Ames, Iowa, the municipal code contains a section titled "Beer Keg Party Regulations."[PDF]. A permit must be obtained if more than one beer-keg tapper is to be used at or about the same time. The permit holder is responsible for cleaning up trash, maintaining sanitary conditions, and making sure the event is clearly marked and roped off (De Raismes, Gordon, and Amundson 2001).

Requiring permits serves at least two important purposes. First, it notifies authorities of large gatherings in advance,[28] which eliminates the unwanted element of surprise. Second, the pre-defined conditions can be used to limit the number of attendees,[29] control the availability of alcohol, and establish minimum standards that must be met before people can assemble. These restrictions and standards can serve to lessen the likelihood of a disturbance, as well as hold the hosts responsible for any negative outcomes.

3. Assigning police officers as advisors to hosts of gatherings. The population of a university community tends to be dynamic. Estimates vary, but it is not uncommon for a university population to replace itself by 25 percent each academic year.[30] This makes communication about existing rules and regulations challenging for police, university officials, and residents.

Some police departments offer the "Adopt-a-Cop" program to fraternities, sororities, and other student groups.[31] This program allows students to adopt a police officer who serves as a mentor and advisor and can also help keep them informed of legal requirements. This program can be extended to individual students or smaller groups of students who plan to host a large gathering. The officer can help ensure that the student or students meet minimum city and university requirements for such an event. This interaction also has the potential to improve student-police relations as well as community-police relations.

4. Increasing the consequences of rioting, and educating students about the penalties. Increasing the consequences and publicizing the penalties for disturbances is widely used as a deterrent to prevent student rioting. Police and universities have found several ways to increase penalties and to alert students of these changes.

Police in Minnesota notify the Winona State University if they arrest a student, so that the university may take further disciplinary action.[32] At the University of New Hampshire, students are warned that a letter will be sent to the parents of each person under the age of 21 who is arrested by the Durham Police.[33] New students receive door hangers in residence halls to remind them of alcohol laws and policies at the University of Northern Colorado.[34] Students at the University of Cincinnati have previously received e-mails explaining the penalties for riot-related offenses.§ Residents in the community surrounding the university have also received door hangers with this information before an expected Cinco de Mayo student street party. Other universities have informed students of the monetary costs of vandalism by posting signs around campus.[35]

§ Ohio House Bill 95 states that any student of a state-funded college or university who is convicted of riot-related offenses will be ineligible to receive any student financial aid from state funds for two years from the time they applied for the assistance. Riot-related offenses include rioting, failure to disperse, disorderly conduct, and misconduct at the scene of an emergency.

Police may want to advocate the establishment of penalties, if they do not already exist. This can be done at either the state or local level of government. Police may also want to work to improve communication with the local university so that students who are arrested for rioting will also be subject to university penalties.


Picture of a notice to new students about the college's alcohol policy for students living in the residence halls.

New students receive door hangers in residence halls to remind them of alcohol laws and policies at the University of Cincinnati. Credit: WCPO-TV/WCPO.com


5. Partnering with the media to influence student and community perceptions. Media coverage of student party riots is often viewed as negative, especially when the coverage focuses on the damage done and creates unwanted political pressures. However, proactive partnerships with the media can help police to influence student and community perceptions of an event. Communication with the media can create a positive image of an event for the community[36] and help discourage trouble-seeking students from attending.

The Lincoln Police Department has kept local Nebraska media informed of police presence at parties to increase students' perception of risk.[37] They claim that their media strategy has been vital to maximizing the deterrent effect of a small number of student arrests.

In addition to local newspapers and television news channels, student newspapers and university newsletters can also provide forums for communicating with students and the surrounding community.

6. Working with landlords to ensure renter compliance. Student party riots have occurred in locations where students rent a high percentage of houses or apartments. In these instances, landlords may be absent and unaware of their tenants' actions. Police in one community found that most landlords were willing to help deal with disorderly students, but that communication was a problem.[38] Police may find it useful to find a way to let landlords know what is occurring on their properties.

If landlords are unwilling to help police, legal requirements can be used to force landlords to remove problematic tenants. Winona State University implemented several programs to combat alcohol-related problems.[39] One is the Landlord Tenant Ordinance, which requires landlords to evict occupants after three violations. If landlords fail to comply, they face a fine and suspension of their rental license.

7. Controlling alcohol distribution. Attempts to limit alcohol distribution can reduce student drunken driving and underage drinking. They may also reduce how physically and psychologically impaired those who usually drink a lot at student gatherings become. Controls on alcohol purchases have been established by working with vendors, targeting underage students, establishing city ordinances, and limiting the number of liquor outlets.

Police can provide free false-identification training for vendors and their employees to help reduce illegal sales to underage students.[40], § Police can also work with vendors to identify minors using fake IDs.[41] This can help police determine the source of the IDs and increase the risk of apprehension for students who attempt to use them. In addition, police may conduct saturation patrols at known underage drinking parties to target those who supply alcohol to minors.[42]

§ See Underage Drinking, guide No. 27 in this series, for further guidance on controlling this aspect of the problem.

In Minnesota, the Winona City Council passed an ordinance to control and track keg distribution.[43] A person must first get council approval if he or she wishes to have two or more half-barrels of beer in a residentially zoned area. Liquor retailers must also keep detailed records of all barrels sold.

Research shows that student party riots around universities can be reduced by limiting the presence of alcohol outlets and advertisements.[44] The number of stores that sell alcoholic beverages in an area has been correlated with heavy drinking, frequent drinking, and drinking-related problems in student populations.[45] Some cities have placed moratoriums on new liquor establishments to control distribution of alcohol within college communities.[46]

It should also be noted that there is a trade-off between the costs and benefits of beer kegs versus bottled or canned beer. Kegs are less expensive and allow students to drink a lot. However, using paper or plastic cups to drink from kegs can be safer than drinking from bottles or cans, which people can use as weapons or projectiles. Broken glass on the street can also produce unintended injuries. Since bottled and canned beer is more expensive, students may not drink as much. On the other hand, keg distribution tends to be more centralized and therefore easier to monitor than the sale of bottled or canned beer.

8. Providing alternative entertainment. Providing alternative attractions to large gatherings can reduce the number of people and subsequent problems associated with an event. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, a campus dance and volleyball tournament were arranged as alternative attractions to an annual canoe race that previously resulted in 150 arrests or more each year.[47] The number of arrests at the canoe race dropped to 14 as a result of these and other interventions. Other universities offer more routine alternatives to drinking parties. The "LateNight PennState" program provides a variety of alcohol-free activities during prime-time social hours (9 p.m. to 2 a.m.).[48] The University of Northern Colorado publishes a list of alcohol-free events on campus for students living in resident halls.[49]

Preassembly Preparation

9. Asking students to participate in "student patrols." To further extend the responsibility of party hosts, police can ask organizers to help form "peer" security groups within the gathering.[50] Similar to student patrols colleges train and use to patrol campus events,[51] student organizers can help to maintain order at large gatherings and reduce the need for intervention by authorities.

picture of two students patrolling a gathering

Student patrols can help maintain order at large gatherings and reduce the need for intervention by authorities. Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign www.dps.uiuc.edu


10. "Sanitizing" the gathering location. Any liftable object can become a weapon. Anything that is flammable may be set on fire. Therefore, police may want to coordinate their efforts with the city sanitation department to "sanitize" a gathering location shortly before the event.§ A general street cleanup should be conducted both before and after the event, removing bottles and other debris that might be used as weapons.[52] Sanitation should include the removal of dumpsters and trash cans that can be set on fire and thrown, tipped over, smashed into patrol cars, or used to block roads. Wooden park benches that can be stacked and burned should also be secured.[53]

§ While working with the Redlands, California, police, Madensen observed several neighborhood cleanups to remove trash and discarded furniture, thus preventing conditions that could lead to fires, injuries, or death. While a freshman at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, Eck was told that the university had replaced loose bricks used around sidewalk tree plantings with materials that students could not hurl at police. Students in Plattsburgh, N.Y., participate in a dorm-room game called "furniture out the window." As the name suggests, drunken students compete by throwing unsecured furniture out of dorm windows. This results in costly property damage and can cause serious injury (Epstein and Finn 1997) [PDF].

Police can also step up code enforcement on private properties to help remove debris. Life-safety code inspections by fire department personnel can help in identifying and reducing hazardous conditions.[54] 

11. Monitoring advertisements for gatherings. Universities that require students to get approval before posting fliers on campus [55] are in a position to notify police if a large gathering is being advertised. By tracking this information, police and university officials will have advance notice of planned gatherings. They will also have information concerning the identity of the organizers, location, time, and, possibly, activities planned for the gathering.

12. Limiting parking. Limiting parking at or near a gathering can help to reduce the amount of damage should a disturbance occur.[56] Forcing people to park some distance away increases the effort needed to get to the event. This may discourage some people from attending. No-parking zones at the event location reduce the likelihood that cars will be flipped, burned, or vandalized by members of the gathering. In addition, efforts to disperse the gathering in case of emergency will not be hampered by traffic jams or accidents caused by a panic.

picture of a car that has been flipped over.

No-parking zones at event locations can reduce the likelihood that cars will be flipped, burned or vandalized such as occurred in Boston after the 2004 World Series. Credit: Wendy Chao - www.wendychao.com



13. Closing or controlling traffic flow. Police should consider closing certain streets to traffic. This will create more space for pedestrians[57] and prevent cars from passing through the gathering. It will also serve to prevent students from bringing in large signs or other items that they can burn or use as weapons.[58]

Assembling Process

14. Providing transportation to the event. Free bus transportation to the event from a centralized location can help facilitate an orderly gathering.[59] This can reduce the number of cars at the event location (see response 12 above). Providing transportation allows authorities to control the time of arrival and the number of people arriving at once. This can also prevent individual students from bringing in large quantities of alcohol. The neighboring university, local school system, or other city agencies that traditionally provide transit services may be willing to donate buses and drivers.

15. Establishing a positive police presence. It is important that police do not provoke a disturbance by appearing overly aggressive or hostile toward members of the gathering. In an effort to change their emphasis from reactive to proactive policing, the Metropolitan Toronto Police now greet people as they arrive at gatherings.[60] The greeting serves to initiate conversations and humanize both police and gathering members. This initial contact makes attendees and police more receptive to later communication and reduces the anonymity of both.

16. Establishing and controlling gathering perimeters. Establishing a boundary as soon as people begin to assemble can help in maintaining control of the event until dispersal, and can prevent any disturbance from spreading to the surrounding areas. Once a disturbance begins, it typically moves quickly and can engulf large areas as it escalates. To gain control of a disturbance, it is essential that perimeters are in place to restrict outsiders' ability to engage in violence and destruction.[61] To establish perimeters, police should look for and use natural barriers. Natural and man-made barriers allow the police to do more with fewer officers.[62]

Assembled Gathering

17. Using alternative deployment methods. Many police departments use alternative officer- deployment methods when policing large gatherings. If available, mounted patrols have particular advantages over traditional car or foot patrols. For example, police can use horses to create a wedge in a gathering, after which foot officers can follow.[63] People at the gathering can more easily see hand directions given by mounted officers. Furthermore, it is reported that most people view police horses positively, and this may improve relations between gathering members and those policing the event.[64]

Bike patrol also has several advantages. Police officials have argued that bikes are more effective in policing gatherings than foot or car patrols due to their speed and mobility.[65] Bike officers can perform static and moving maneuvers to create visibility, barriers, and openings in the gathering.§ In general, bike patrols are more effective in low-density gatherings that cover large areas, while foot patrols are most effective in dealing with high-density gatherings in smaller areas.

§ Static maneuvers use bikes in a small geographic area. "Post" and "barrier" are the two most common assignments. In post, the bike unit maintains a high-visibility presence in a particular location (e.g., a single corner or entire city block). In barrier, officers use bikes to block or fence off a street, entryway, or other large area by positioning them wheel to wheel. They can then become a moving tactic called "mobile fencing," as officers lift the bikes to their chest and press them toward the gathering. Moving maneuvers use bikes in conducting standard crowd-control movements: columns, lines, diagonals, wedges, and crossbow bring officers to a particular point in the gathering to remove a hazard or make an arrest (Goetz 2002) [PDF].

Small groups of officers—typically six to eight—have been used to effectively manage large gatherings. These small teams are large enough to defend themselves, but are not large enough to instigate a disruption.[66] The Lincoln Police Department deploys a single group of these officers, called a Party Patrol, on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights during the academic year to locate and respond to large student parties.[67]

18. Using visual deterrents to inhibit misconduct. Police can use visual deterrents to warn students that officers will act if they engage in disruptive behavior. For example, police may position a highly recognizable "prison bus" to act as a deterrent to those less likely to engage in a disturbance.[68] Police officers distributing brochures listing the penalties for riotous behavior may also have a deterrent effect.[69] Too many visual deterrents, however, may appear hostile to some in the gathering, and instigate a disturbance. Others may become desensitized to the overuse of such visuals.

19. Videotaping the assembled gathering. Anything that can reduce the anonymity of people at a gathering can help to undermine the momentum of those who wish to start trouble.[70] Students may be less likely to feel as though their actions and identities will go undetected by authorities if the event is being recorded. If a disturbance does occur, police can later use video taken of the gathering to identify those who instigated and participated in the disturbance.

20. Strategically locating the media around the gathering. Students are often drawn to news crews in hopes of appearing on television or being pictured or quoted in a magazine or newspaper. Police can use the media to help control gatherings by placing them away from the densest areas of the event.[71] Placing cameras at different points can spread the students more evenly throughout the area and serve to break the cohesion of large groups.

21. Recognizing and immediately removing factors that could lead to a flashpoint.

The major objective for police at large gatherings is to keep people moving and in small groups.[72] A mobile unit should make an evaluation if any suspicious activity is observed, if a single subgroup begins to increase significantly in size, or if there is a significant lull in activity that is not followed by student dispersal.

Police should identify, isolate, and remove aggressive students as soon as possible, without disrupting the rest of the event.[73] Police do not want to instigate violence with their presence or actions. Therefore, they should use only subtle "shows of force" to deal with problem individuals, and take them away without antagonizing the rest of the gathering members.[74] Police may want to establish observation posts above the gathering, and use radios to direct small arrest teams on the ground.

Intervening only to extract problem individuals and remove anything that threatens to become a focal point allows the celebration to continue. Without needing to respond to major acts of violence or vandalism, police can allow the people in the gathering to essentially wear themselves out and lose interest in staying at the event.[75]

22. Developing a standard operating procedure in case of a disturbance. Although the focus should be on preventative efforts, police are not always aware of gatherings until someone reports a disturbance. Unfortunately, even the best strategies can sometimes fail to prevent a disturbance. For this reason, police must not forget to develop a well-planned standard operating procedure for responding in case one occurs.[76] While a detailed review of the tactics and procedures police use to quell a large disturbance is beyond the scope of this guide, you can find additional materials on the National Criminal Justice Reference Service web site.§

§ The web address for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service is www.ncjrs.org. You can find documents related to crowd and riot control by searching the library abstracts contained in the site.

Dispersal Process

23. Providing transportation from the event. Providing transportation from the event to dorms or some other centralized location allows police to initiate and control the dispersal process.[77] This can reduce loitering and students ability to vandalize other students' vehicles. It also may reduce student drunken driving.

If providing transportation is not a viable option, you should check on the availability of public transportation. If the event ends after public transportation has stopped, then problems may arise. Police should partner with the local transit authorities to determine if public transportation hours can be extended for that day or evening.

24. Facilitating orderly dispersal. Recognizing when to begin to facilitate dispersal of a gathering is crucial. One indication that a gathering is ready for dispersal is when people begin to break into smaller conversational groups. At this point the gathering has lost its cohesion, and police should begin to ask people to leave. Individuals will be more receptive to this command because the anonymity of the larger group no longer protects them.[78]

If a disturbance breaks out during the dispersal process, a tactical deployment of officers should focus on the element involved in criminal activity. Other uniformed officers should simultaneously help bystanders and other nonparticipating individuals to leave the area.[79]

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

25. Developing reactive responses only. The importance of developing multiple proactive strategies has been stressed throughout this guide. Increasing the effectiveness of a preplanned standard operating procedure in case of an actual disturbance is important. This alone, however, is unlikely to prevent a disturbance. This is especially true if your jurisdiction has experienced more than a single student party riot. If many of these events have occurred over several years, students may feel more committed to the event, and less receptive to official intervention. Sanctions may also fail to prove a strong deterrent. Working with multiple partners, including students, to develop proactive interventions holds the greatest potential for reducing the likelihood of another disturbance.

26. Banning all student parties. A zero-tolerance approach to student parties may not produce the intended outcome. There are civil liberty issues associated with this approach, especially if the parties occur off campus. Also, harassing students who throw nondestructive parties can strain student-police relations. Students may engage in retaliatory or destructive behaviors if they perceive police actions as unjust.

27. Relying on parental control. Many universities have implemented a "parental notification" system that informs parents of student misbehavior.[80] Some parents may pay for their son or daughters tuition and/or living expenses. For these students, parental notification may provide a strong deterrent to engaging in student party riots. This strategy is likely to be less effective, however, for students who live on their own and are financially independent. There can also be confidentiality issues associated with sharing personal information about individuals who are over 18 with anyone, including their parents.

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