"If we win, I think we will have a good night. If we lose, I'm not really optimistic at all," said Tom Wibert, Chief of Police for the City of East Lansing.
If you have been around East Lansing for any of the recent trips to the Final Four, then you know that besides basketball, MSU is also closely associated with another tradition this time of year: riots. This has been going on for years, from Vietnam era protests and the old tradition of Cedar Fest to the late 90's football related incidents, including one embarrassing night after a victory over Western Michigan. Students even rioted after the University banned alcohol on Munn Field, a move meant to curb rowdy behavior.
But then came our basketball success. Starting with the loss to Duke in 1999, MSU has rioted after every Final Four loss. Our only Final Four where we didn't riot was in 2000, when MSU won the National Championship. There were still many people out in the streets, but that year it was more like a big party.
In 2005, the situation was just as out of hand for the police as it was for the students. Many citizens complained that the police went too far in their handling of the situation, and the City of East Lansing created a commission to review policies for future incidents. East Lansing Police Chief Tom Wibert (who took over after the 2005 incident) and MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap, as well as MSU Vice President Fred Poston all apologized for police actions during that night.
The commission produced a lengthy report that has served as a starting point for the East Lansing police in preparing for future incidents. (Full disclosure, TOSSS writer Derek Wallbank served on this commission, and this writer testified to that commission). The 43 page report listed 29 recommendations for future events, in areas from planning to implementation. Focus areas included communication and protection of personal rights. In 2006, the chiefs of police visited MSU's student governments, ASMSU and RHA, to review their revised "Use of Force" polices. This presentation outlined the steps that both the crowd and police would take before there would be any release of chemical munitions. The following chart was among the materials presented that day.
While these preparations were made for the 2006 NCAA Tournament, MSU has not advanced far enough for there to be any basketball related incidents since 2005. However, in 2008 a group of students were able to resurrect a version of Cedar Fest using the internet to help encourage attendance. Around 1 a.m. the evening of the event, the crowd turned violent and was declared an "unlawful assembly," legalize for riot. Police then used chemical munitions to disperse the crowd. Unlike in 2005, most people agreed with the police actions in 2008.
Since that incident, officials have been preparing for this year's tournament. Chief Tom Wibert and East Lansing Assistant City Attorney Tom Yeadon visited RHA on March 4th to discuss the incident in 2008 and its differences from 2005, as well as to discuss wording changes adopted by East Lansing to it's riot ordinance.
"In '05 we had over 280 police officers compared to 80 (last) year, in '05 tear gas was the first resort whereas last year we used it as the last resort," Wibert told the assembled students. "In '05 we sent off 300 rounds and last year we used 13." Wibert continued, "We are shifting towards taking the sportiness out of the event and making it a personal thing. People who were throwing things like bottles and bricks should be arrested. We will have the folks available to take these people to jail in the future."
"People go to observe, but I've prosecuted people who went there with that intention who got caught up in the activities and ended up doing something stupid," Tom Yeadon cautioned. "If you haven’t heard an announcement, don’t assume it’s not a riot. If the crowd is violent, it’s a riot. We are going to take some measures to run warnings on a loop, so people are continually fed the notice."
"ELPD and MSU PD don't have the numbers to deal with a large crowd. We have requested help from several area agencies and the State Police," Wibert said this week about preparations for for this weekends games. "We started working on our plan months ago. Our focus will continue to be reducing the amount of chemical munitions and increasing individual accountability. We will be capable of arresting mass quantities of people if necessary."
This weekend's plan is based off of recommendations and lessons from both 2005 and 2008, according to Wibert. "We are using a better sound system. (In 2008) it took 20 minutes to get the unlawful assembly announcement out. That's way too long. Also, we made 50 arrests that night and it caused all kinds of havoc in the jail." Wibert stressed that this weekend they will be ready to handle large numbers of arrests.
He cautioned that one significant recommendation of the 2005 report has not been adopted, dealing with crowd decontamination. "We can't get MSU or Olin to help. Our fire department can't help because they are busy with riot related fires and injuries."
"We plan for the worst and hope for the best," Wibert said when asked if he was optimistic about this weekend. "In 2000, we had a huge crowd after winning the title, but it went really well. I think that the best thing that could happen is if we win and have a huge party."