St. Patrick’s Day weekend is a time of lively celebration around campus. Students and visitors walk around in bright green, searching for bars and house parties where they can have some laughs and good experiences.
From a police officer’s perspective, however, days like these mean more work.
On Saturday, I had the opportunity to join Sergeant Christian Vandervort from the Division of Public Safety as he drove around campus midday, looking for parties that could get out of hand.
His patrol was part of a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board that pays for Penn Police officers to work overtime on “high-risk weekends” to help educate the community on alcohol safety.
“Here we go,” Vandervort said on our first stop, as he pulled the police car over next to a house with about a dozen students standing on the front porch holding beers. Vandervort grabbed a handful of pamphlets off his dashboard and walked over to the students.
From the car, I could hear him ask for all of the residents of the house to come down from the porch and speak with him. Five males circled around him as the rest of the guests watched in confusion, smiling at each other and wondering what was going on.
Vandervort explained to them some of the responsibilities of throwing parties. Later on in the day, he said to them, there would be an increased number of officers patrolling around to make sure nobody was disturbing the local residents. If the party became too loud or caused a disturbance, he said, it could be shut down.
“I told them, ‘This is what’s going on. I need you to be responsible today,’” Vandervort said.
After speaking with the students, Vandervort handed them a pamphlet with information on emergency resources, a guide to planning events in off-campus homes and the definitions of Pennsylvania crimes like disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.
“I think this brochure is a great result of the partnership here at Penn with all the University stakeholders, such as the Office of Alcohol and Other [Drug Program Initiatives], that highlights the work we have all been doing for this educational campaign,” Maureen Rush , Vice President for Public Safety, said in an interview.
The brochure was just finalized and printed last week. Beyond its use by police officers on high-risk weekends, it will also be handed out to students groups, the MERT team, UA members and others who could pass on and benefit from the information, Rush said.
“If I see neighbors sitting on the steps, I go up to them and ask them if they’ve been having any problems with other residents,” Vandervort said, “and I address any concerns that they may have.” After each of these conversations, he would give them a pamphlet, too.
Before the brochure was created, officers handed out a postcard listing available resources for students, as well as news articles from The Daily Pennsylvanian and The Philadelphia Inquirer related to alcohol incidents in the past.
Vandervort would later have to get his officers ready for their patrols. Some of the officers would continue to hand out pamphlets to neighborhood residents, while others would stand on the streets and stop people going to and from parties to give them the information.
As I thought about this tactic of alcohol education, it dawned on me that officers are handing out this information to some students who are already drinking and could be underage - are they really going to read it?
“We don’t think residents are going to sit there and read the brochure at that moment at their party,” Rush said, “but somebody’s going to pick it up the next day and see how they have to be responsible party-givers.”
As for the effectiveness of the campaign, Rush said, “I think we’ll know that more this Spring Fling because we’re doing all this preemptive work.”
Rush pointed out that they’ve seen fewer “problem houses” this winter, so this could carry on through the rest of the school year.
In the 1990s, when the problem houses near campus were at their most active, the University created the first alcohol taskforce. “That’s when the Penn Police and the LCE began actively enforcing liquor laws and addressing disturbances in these houses, and since then, the levels [of activity] have started to drop,” Rush said.
Later on in my ride-along, Vandervort pulled up to a group of people standing on the sidewalk with beers in hand. He told them about Pennsylvania’s open container law, which basically means that you could get arrested for having an open container of alcohol on the sidewalk.
“They didn’t know that because the students were from New York,” Vandervort said. As we drove away, they walked off the curb and back into the house.
It might be hard to tell exactly how effective the efforts are, but at the very least, the work seems to be building relations between officers and the community.
“We develop a rapport with these kids,” Vandervort said. “If this becomes a problem house later on, I can come back and say, ‘I spoke to you earlier. Now I have to shut the party down,’ and they understand because we gave them a chance.”
When the five males walked away from Vandervort at the first house, they looked at each other to gauge the group’s reaction to the situation. “That’s gotta be the nicest cop I’ve ever talked to,” one of them said.