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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Madison police prepare for long Halloween weekend
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The University Inn at the intersection of Frances and State streets is again serving as the police command center for the Halloween event in downtown Madison.
The University Inn at the intersection of Frances and State streets is again serving as the police command center for the Halloween event in downtown Madison.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

While there've been many announced changes to this year's Halloween parties on State Street -- most notably the fencing, admissions system and live entertainment -- one thing that's changing little is law enforcement's approach to crowd control.

Most primary elements of police strategy remain: large numbers of officers, participation of multiple agencies, mounted police, surveillance cameras, a high-tech command center and contingency plans for the use of stadium lights, stadium speakers and, yes, riot gear and pepper spray.

Here are some of the specific details, as provided by MPD spokesperson Mike Hanson:

  • More than 225 officers will be deployed on Friday night, and more than 250 on Saturday night.
  • There will be 14 mounted officers.
  • Eight rapid response teams, each consisting of five persons, will be at the ready.
  • Officers from five primary agencies will collaborate in enforcement. They are: the Madison Police Department, the UW Police Department, the Capitol Police Department, the Dane County Sheriff's Office and the Wisconsin State Patrol.
  • MPD Asst. Chief Randy Gaber will head the unified command structure.

Plans call for removing arrested persons from State Street and bussing them to a processing center at the City-County Building.

One problem in 2005 was the behavior of mostly intoxicated revelers towards police horses. Hanson stresses that partiers should keep their hands off the animals. "If a person wants to talk to the mounted officer, that's great," he says, "but what we saw was slapping and hitting of the horses, and that's completely inappropriate." Violators can be charged with "abuse to a police animal," Hanson says.

Then there's the question of how and when the command center would order police officers on the street to change into their "hard gear" -- plastic and fabric armor accompanied by a helmet and a utility belt, complete with pepper spray.

Hanson says this decision will be made based on a number of factors, "The overall decision is made by the commander in the command post," he says, based on input they receive from "commanders actually in the crowd assessing demeanor, alcohol levels, acts" and so on.

In previous years, the point at which law enforcement abruptly and massively changed its stance towards the crowd has been utterly predictable. It's been a dance in which a small group of troublemakers physically threaten police officers, who subsequently adopt a more aggressive stance. More people would gather -- some to join in the ruckus, many more just to observe. Then the police declare an unlawful gathering, change into their hard gear, and proceed to clear the street.

How will this year's party end? Can this pattern of confrontation and escalation be avoided? The answer is not as simple as it seems.

Complicating matters this year is that Daylight Savings Time ends at 1:59 a.m. in the early morning of Sunday, Oct. 29, a time in past years when the party on State Street was still going strong. After the last second of that minute, the time will "fall back" to 1:00 a.m. Last year, as taverns had an extra hour to remain open so did the party. This year, things will be handled differently.

The live music at both Freakfest stages is scheduled to end at 1:15 a.m., prior to the time set-back, and the crowds will be expected to begin clearing the street around 1:30 a.m. Revelers will be asked to remove themselves from the road portion of State Street, although the sidewalks will remain open during this crowd-clearing period.

How will the police actually go about clearing the streets, an action that has served as a flashpoint for confrontation during the last four years?

"At 1:30 a.m.," Hanson explains, "we are expecting a 'managed volunteer closure time' in which people decide on their own to leave the area." That's optimistic, similar to the expectations of voluntary compliance proffered in years past.

Of course, if optimistic projections were horses, revelers could get hefty fines for touching them. No one -- especially the police -- will be surprised if this year's event, like the last four, ends badly.

On Wednesday morning, Hanson sent an e-mail urging reporters covering the event to purchase a yellow traffic vest for identification purposes. This is because, at the end of last year's event, some reporters were "inadvertently sprayed with gas." (Actually, one incident last year where an officer pepper-sprayed a WKOW TV camera crew at point-blank range in front of The Towers dormitories was anything but inadvertent.)

"We are not requiring, but are thinking it would be helpful, to have something that STANDS OUT to police officers, particularly towards the end of the night, identifying you as media," Hanson wrote. He subsequently cautioned that wearing these vests "will not allow for special privileges to climb treetops, fences or roofs." They are "simply a tool to help visually communicate during potentially tense times."

But the larger question is: How can communication between police and partiers be improved during the tenser portions of the night? None of the changes for this year's event really address that question.

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