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UW Police turn other cheek to tailgate drinking and driving

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The University of Washington Student Newspaper Tuesday, November 14, 1995

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UW Police turn other cheek to tailgate drinking and driving Aimee Green Daily Staff

As football fans streamed out of Husky Stadium, a driver backed his full-size truck out of its Montlake parking lot space. But on this particular day, the Saturday of the Oct. 7 Notre Dame game, he was having more trouble than most drivers. He appeared to be a product of a day of drinking.Even then, as he got into the car to go home, he was working on a bottle of beer. A friend waved him out, helping him maneuver past two cars he nearly hit. A handful of passers-by stopped to watch the production, yet there was not a police officer in sight.Each Husky home game, thousands of fans load up on alcohol in the parking lots and the stadium while UW police virtually ignore enforcing the law. Two state laws prohibit drinking in public places. Although most of these fans cause few problems, some carry drinking to the extreme - passing out from alcohol poisoning, causing the occasional fight, or worse yet, drinking then driving.For many, drinking and football go together. It's a practice deeply rooted in tradition. Fans, many of them alumni season-ticket holders, gather in the parking lots in the early morning several hours before kickoff. They pay $7 to $14 to park their cars, minivans and RVs and party, or "tailgate," as it's called.It's a jovial atmosphere - sausages roast on the barbecue while friends chat, sipping beer and freshly mixed drinks. It's also a world to which police seem oblivious."I know of no liquor permits issued for the parking lot," said UW Police Capt. Jon Brouelette. "We do not expect to see people drink out there."Tailgaters say police tolerate drinking"If they don't know we're drinking, then they're really naive," said tailgater Dave Schmitz of Bothell. "They have to know."It's common knowledge that tailgaters drink, but police don't crack down on it. Only two bicycle officers are assigned to patrol the parking lots before games, while not one is assigned after the game - the most critical time to stop drinkers from getting into their cars drunk.The lack of police enforcement is a system tailgaters say they understand well."The policy has always been 'sight unseen' - have it but don't show it," said tailgater Mike Swoffer, as he sipped from a cup of beer and turned over a thick sausage in the Montlake parking lot. "We put our booze in cups."Police say a lack of "probable cause" usually prevents them from walking up to people and checking the content of cups. But Swoffer thinks there are other reasons why the police don't crack down on drinkers, and that they could if they really wanted to.Swoffer, a 29-year-old alumnus and season-ticket holder, said he gives a yearly donation to the UW Athletic Department. Since some of the best seats in the stadium are reserved for alumni boosters, Swoffer's donation gets him a good seat at home football games. But is his donation enough to buy him the influence to not be bothered by police? Swoffer thinks so."I figure the older you are and the more money you have, the less likely they are to target you," he said. "A lot of the older crowd are more likely to give money to the University."Two car rows over, 48-year-old tailgater Frank Savage echoed this sentiment, which seems to be no secret among tailgaters."We like the drinking policy because they don't mess with alumni," he said. "Are you going to mess with someone who gives $10,000 a year to the University?"And at $10 a park," he added, "we ought to be able to drink."Savage said if police started enforcing the official no-drinking policy, the economy of the game would be hurt."Look around. Doesn't it look like everyone's having a good time?" he asked. "Why would you change anything, if it would keep you from having a sellout every week?"The official storyWhen first contacted for this story, police officially refused to acknowledge that there was drinking at tailgate parties. After further discussion, police now admit that tailgating exists and that it can lead to problems, especially after the game."Obviously there is a considerable amount of alcohol consumption before and after the football games, but there's not a political agenda associated with it," said Randy Stegmeier, assistant UW Police chief."There may well be on [the athletic department's] part some type of wish that Tyee-drinkers, alumni-drinkers aren't 'cracked-down' upon," he said. "But they don't control what we do."It's a matter of reasonableness and reality," he said. "There's no way a department of our size - with 50 total commissioned people - can enforce the drinking policy to the letter of the law."Brouelette said only two officers are assigned to patrol the parking lots, and only before games, partially because of a lack of staff."There are priorities," Brouelette said. "When you have a number of things going on, you have to pick what's most important."Before and after the games, Brouelette said priority is placed on making sure traffic flows smoothly. No officers are assigned to patrol the parking lots for drinking after games because all available officers are needed to dispense traffic, he said.At the Oct. 28 USC game, there were no bicycle officers on duty because four officers were on sick leave and the force was left short.Jeff Eddy, an officer who normally patrols the parking lots by bike before games, said with just two officers on pre-game parking lot duty, they don't have the time to go in-between cars and cite even those who are openly drinking out of cans or bottles. The two officers usually park their bikes and monitor those who walk by."It's so busy that it's usually a keep-it-under-control situation," he said. "If we see people walk by us with beer cans, we ask them to pour it out."Just the two of us, we're not going to be able to deal with everything out there," he said. "We're doing what we can proactively."Christine Hughes, an attorney who represents the UW, said a plaintiff may be able to sue the University successfully for injuries obtained in a drunk-driving incident after the game."It depends on the specific facts," she said. "If the police saw the person drinking and they turned away, then that's very different than if they didn't know the person was drinking at all."Stegmeier admitted that even though resources are stretched, the police need to and would "look into" making some changes."Fortunately, to my knowledge, there's no specific incidents I can point to where Husky fans caused a drunk-driving accident," Stegmeier said. "We certainly don't want to wait until there's a nasty incident."There is a problem," Stegmeier said. "The extent of the problem is the question. "We need to re-evaluate where we place our officers so we can stop the problem from getting worse," he said. "We'd very much like there to be more enforcement."The athletic department's storyNot only did Barbara Hedges, the UW's athletic director, say alumni dollars don't influence enforcement of the drinking policy, she denied there's a problem with illegal drinking in the parking lots."I've walked the parking lots myself and people obey the rules," she said. "People don't have open containers in the parking lot."When informed about further information in this story, including evidence in pictures from the parking lots, Hedges said she trusts fans."How do you know what's in that cup?" she said. "It could be apple juice. It could be anything. Am I going to give them the benefit of the doubt? You bet I am."When told that Stegmeier admitted there is a "considerable amount of alcohol consumption before and after football games," Hedges insisted Stegmeier did not say such a thing.Later, she qualified her statement."People have been extremely responsible," she said. "They aren't blatant about it."Hedges said the athletic department has made a good effort to ensure fans follow the rules."We've addressed this through an education policy," she said. "We send out information to season-ticket holders."Tailgating crowd generally a peaceful crowdTailgater Schmitz said he doesn't worry about drunk driving. He said he got up at 7 a.m., dropped his kids off with friends, then came down to the parking lot and started drinking around 9:30 a.m. He said he and his friends usually average about 10 beers each while eating food during a 10-hour period, and by the evening, they are OK to drive.Steve Maag, one of Schmitz's friends and a UW alumnus, said most drinkers are responsible."There's no doubt that there's people leaving here who probably shouldn't be driving," said Maag. "But most people now are pretty good at knowing whether they should be driving or not."Like Schmitz and Maag, many tailgaters say they spread out their drinking, stop drinking hours before they drive or have a designated driver.The tailgating crowd mostly is made up of die-hard Husky fans, who come to the parking lots simply to have a good time with friends, a barbecue and beer. The majority cause no problems, and that's why they say the police ignore their presence."It's very pleasant out here," Savage said. "Everyone behaves themselves, so it's not really a problem. And if it's not a problem, don't fix it."

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