Policing Plazapalooza

Arcata's New Year's resolution -- keep revelers from trashing the town square



Shards of glass lined the sidewalk. The statue of President William McKinley was covered in graffiti. Foliage in planter boxes had been trampled. It wasn't the morning-after remains of a raucous rave; it was just another Nov. 1 on the Arcata Plaza.

North Coast residents have come to expect chaos from Halloween on the Plaza, where thousands celebrate each year by drinking, dancing and climbing the statue. But this year, with damages exceeding $30,000, the revelry may finally have gone too far.

With another popular night for plaza partying -- New Year's Eve -- mere days away, police and city officials are planning to protect the square, according to Arcata Public Works Director Robert "Doby" Class. One option being discussed, he said, is fencing off the center of the Plaza. Another possible tactic, mentioned at a recent City Council meeting, is greasing the statue.

Mayor Michael Winkler said he wants the plaza "to be a place where people can have a good time." But he called the Halloween festivities unacceptable. "We had something near a riot that the police could barely control."

A subcommittee was formed last month to devise a more permanent solution to the problem, but that solution won't arrive before the New Year: The next subcommittee meeting was pushed to Jan. 24 to allow participation from Humboldt State University staff and students, according to City Manager Randy Mendosa.

One person planning to be on the plaza for New Year's Eve is Patrick Peterson, a junior psychology major at Humboldt State University who considers McKinley-climbing a "pretty cool tradition." An employee at Cher-Ae Heights Casino, Peterson said he always has a good time on the Plaza. But he's worried about New Year's Eve. "I do fear higher [police] presence and higher enforcement," he said.

The Arcata Police Department won't talk about its plans for New Year's Eve. "We don't discuss police tactics, especially before an event," said Lt. Ryan Peterson (no relation to Patrick). "We don't want people in the community to be able to plan against what we're doing."

With only 28 sworn officers in the Arcata Police Department, Peterson said the ranks are a bit thin. "We're a small community and we don't have a lot of resources. ... I wish we had more, but we don't." In the past, the department has sought assistance from other law enforcement agencies, such as the Eureka Police Department and Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. Regarding Saturday night, Peterson would only say that "all options are open."

The Plaza crowd for last New Year's Eve was about 2,500 people compared to roughly 5,000 for this year's Halloween, according to Peterson. Twenty people were arrested on Halloween, mostly for public drunkenness, while fewer than 10 were arrested last New Year's Eve. "Five or six years ago, New Year's Eve was the worse of the two [holidays]," Peterson said, adding that even 10 arrests is too many for a community of this size.

Matt Cahill, a bartender at Toby & Jack's on the plaza, called the public concern over New Year's "much ado about nothing." After seven years of working the holiday eve, he has the routine down. "It's slow until 11:15, nuts, and then slow again."

Councilmember Susan Ornelas said New Year's Eve tends to draw a slightly older and tamer crowd than Halloween, since many college students head out of town for the holidays. Plus, she said, "I think Halloween brings up a little more of a lawless feeling."

Ornelas suggested that the city coordinate with the university to survey students to learn what they want out of their nightlife. Perhaps a reggae concert might help people celebrate without costing the city so much money, she suggested.

As for Saturday night she said, "I think we're just praying for the best, really."

Elliot Golan is a freelance journalist and graduating senior at HSU. He is originally from Los Angeles and currently works as the afternoon host at KHSU.

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