Bellingham Police used up crowd control arsenal to disperse rioters near WWU

WWU president: "We all feel outraged"

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 14, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Bellingham Police used their entire stock of pepper balls, smoke canisters and other non-lethal devices in their effort to break up a riot near Western Washington University over the weekend.

"We depleted our crowd control munitions, so we've ordered more," Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook told City Council members and Mayor Kelli Linville in a public meeting Monday afternoon, Oct. 14. He briefed them on the incident that began Saturday night.

The effort to disperse hundreds of drunk young people drew law enforcement officers from as far away as Snohomish County and left Bellingham with only two officers to respond to calls in other parts of the city.

Cook gave a timeline of how events unfolded Saturday.

-- Officers received a tip about a large party at 1211 Jersey St. around 8:30 p.m. An officer drove by and then returned around 9:30 p.m. to break up a group of about 200 partiers that had gathered in the apartment complex.

Police broke up a similar party at that address in June. At that time, officers were met with reluctance to disperse, Cook said. He doesn't expect charges will be filed against Saturday's party hosts, because the majority were cooperative in shutting it down, he said.

-- After the party broke up, police received calls that hundreds of drunk people had gathered in nearby Laurel Park. Officers arrived and ordered the crowd of about 400 to leave, but they refused.

At that point, some in the crowd started to throw "hand-held missiles" at officers, police cruisers, private property and others in the crowd. Beer bottles, dishes, lawn chairs and cinder blocks were thrown at cruisers, and rioters pulled up traffic signs. Three officers received minor injuries from broken glass and three cruisers were taken out of commission, Cook said.

-- Police were at the scene for an hour trying to convince students to leave before using dispersal tactics, Cook said. Officers used smoke, pepper spray, pepper balls, and fired some "drag stabilizers" to clear crowds. The stabilizers are round projectiles with a cotton-like cover that are softer on impact than bean bags, Cook said.

Police were on scene for about three hours.

Some officers did not have recent crowd control training, and it was difficult to quickly deploy the response unit because the melee was not something the department had planned for, Cook said.

"Had we not had party patrols or the extra downtown patrols, we would've been short eight officers," he said in the meeting.

Officers from Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, Western Washington University Police Department and Washington State Patrol also responded to the riot. Troopers came from as far away as Snohomish County to respond, said Trooper Mark Francis, a state patrol spokesman.

The total bill for damage was not available Monday afternoon. Damage to police cruisers was estimated in the thousands, and Bellingham Public Works should have an estimate for the cost of street sweeping and sign replacement later this week.

Cook will review officer training, but said he was proud of the calm and collected response. Department officials will discuss whether or not they will increase party patrols from their current levels.

WWU President Bruce Shepard said the Dean of Students, Ted Pratt, is working with police to identify those involved, and the university will punish or expel any student who was involved in criminal and destructive behavior.

"We all feel outraged," Shepard said. "We are really in the recovery phase now. This is not what Western stands for, what our 15,000 students who didn't participate stand for, or what our community stands for."

WWU plans to meet with neighborhood associations to address how the university can improve neighborhoods near campus and avoid creating a reputation for partying or violence, Shepard said.

"We don't want to create something like University Avenue in Seattle," Shepard said. "We all need to do something positive."

Steve Swan, WWU vice president for university relations, also addressed the council Monday afternoon.

"Our students are very embarrassed about this situation," Swan said. "Every meeting we've had, they've praised BPD for their patience, restraint and professionalism."

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Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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