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Police question proposed ordinance

Karen Langley | Friday, August 31, 2007

Leaders of the South Bend Police Department believe the Common Council’s proposed ordinance to require permits for some off-campus parties is not the best way to address out-of-control gatherings – and might not even be enforceable.

“The question is, how far is everybody willing to stretch or fund the city’s resources to necessarily enforce this,” said Capt. Phil Trent, a spokesman for the police department. “We need to take a really good look at all the city resources and our ability to do what we say we’re going to do.”

When faced with a city of more than 105,000 people to police, patrolling officers will need to respond to calls – not pore over a list of potential parties, he said.

Sponsoring Council members argue the ordinance would introduce responsibility and order to students in residential neighborhoods. The Council’s proposed ordinance would require residents of boarding houses – buildings in which more than two unrelated people live – to file an application for a permit 10 days before hosting a party at which more than 25 people would have access to alcohol. Failure to register such a gathering would be punishable by a $500 fine, with a $1,000 fine for any subsequent violation. Violations of any other city laws would retain their own fines.

The specifics of the bill are not conducive to efficient patrolling, Trent said.

“We’ve got legitimate bars, fully licensed, with 100 patrons spilling out onto the streets,” he said. “Somebody’s party with 25 people isn’t even going to register on the radar.”

Council members readily admitted during community relations committee meetings that the ordinance would primarily affect students.

Council member Al “Buddy” Kirsits, a co-sponsor, has said many neighborhood problems are caused by “a culture of drinking” among college students.

The ordinance’s other sponsor, Council member Tim Rouse, said student partying has required increased city response and resources.

“There’s a perception that things have gotten better, but when you look at the data, they’ve actually regressed,” he said at the Aug. 20 community relations committee meeting. “We have more instances of things that cost the city money.”

Later during that meeting, Chief Thomas Fautz of the South Bend Police Department disagreed.

Fautz said police had seen a “slight improvement” in off-campus student partying last year, a change potentially related to the amendment added to the disorderly house ordinance during the summer of 2005.

The Common Council amended the disorderly house ordinance, changing the number of noise violations needed for eviction from three to one – in part because the measure, like this proposed ordinance, was introduced while most students were away from campus for the summer.

Though Council members said the proposed ordinance would provide police with information about large parties, the city’s police have their own concerns about the legislation, police spokesperson Trent said.

“They’re making it sound like the South Bend Police Department is the principal body that’s trying to push this ordinance,” he said. “I think if you look back at what our police chief said during the council meeting … he basically listed some things to the effect that on a football Saturday, we don’t have time to do what the ordinance mandates we do.”

Trent emphasized the need to be “realistic” when enforcing laws. Telling seasoned police officers how to find out-of-control parties would use city resources while accomplishing little, he said.

“If there’s a party on East Washington Street with 400 people, they’re not going to hide that very well,” he said. “It’s not going to be a news flash.”

One positive aspect of the proposed ordinance, Trent said, would be the requirement of contact information for someone who considered himself responsible for the event.

“You usually get out there and ask who owns [the house,] you get 199 shrugs,” he said.

South Bend Mayor Stephen Luecke has encouraged Council members to revise the ordinance before bringing it to vote. The city administration has prepared a working draft of a revised ordinance that was discussed at a community relations committee meeting Monday. In that draft, the application submitted to the city 10 days in advance of an event was changed to a notification to the police department 24 hours before an event.

“It doesn’t do any good to have an ordinance that is ignored, not enforceable or taken to court,” Luecke said after the community relations committee meeting Aug. 20.

Students had already responded strongly to the ordinance and its emphasis on drinking-related problems when the Aug. 21 shooting of two Notre Dame seniors – both whom are recovering – attracted campus attention to violent crime in South Bend.

Discussion of the ordinance has highlighted one frequent misconception about the police department, Trent said.

“One of the things we hear as a complaint would be, ‘Why don’t you guys have anything better to do than write tickets for underage drinking? Why are you so fixated on this as opposed to catching people doing crimes?'” he said.

As with any public service agency, police departments are subject to a strict division of labor, Trent said. Some officers patrol the streets to prevent crime, while others serve as excise officers.

No officer whose duties include checking for underage drinking at Saturday tailgates would otherwise be walking the streets to investigate crime, he said.

Whether the current allocation of resources to various police ventures is the best possible division, he said, can be debated.