Iowa City Stories

May 13, 2010

Safety in the wake of 21-only

When the 21-ordinance in Iowa City takes effect on June 1, thousands of underage bar-goers will find themselves without a weekend refuge.

There has been much speculation about where the young party crowd will choose to spend their nights when they can no longer hang out downtown. Many have suggested that the city’s neighborhoods will see a spike in the number of house parties. Others have said that residence hall personnel will have their hands full dealing with the increase of UI students drinking in the dorms. And still others say people will stop visiting Iowa City altogether.

Whatever the case may be, the Iowa City Police Department and UI Department of Public Safety will need to adapt to new and perhaps unforeseen challenges.

The rise of the house party?

House parties around the UI campus are few and far between due to the city’s vibrant downtown bar scene. But under the new ordinance, the “they’ll just drink somewhere else” argument says all signs point to an impending rise in the number of house parties.

UI Department of Public Safety

UI police vehicles outside the UI Department of Public Safety in the Old Capitol Mall

But police officials are not convinced.

Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said only time will tell if students and others truly do migrate to the neighborhoods.

“We won’t know until it happens,” Brotherton said. “There’s always house parties, we’ll just have to see if the 21-ordinance increases that.”

Charles Green, the assistant vice president for UI police, echoed Brotherton’s uncertainty.

“It’s an unknown,” Green said. “We really don’t know what the impact is going to be.”

And while it remains to be seen, those who believe the increase is imminent say the police will be unable to control partiers once they are spread out across the neighborhoods.

Brotherton said although a reallocation of resources might be necessary, the idea that house parties are harder to control than the centralized downtown area is unfounded.

“We go to a house party, it’s just a house party. We can shut it down,” Brotherton said. “There’s more we can do to control it out there.”

Downtown is not dead

So while neighborhood parties remain a concern that both departments will monitor closely, the downtown area will not be without its police presence.

Green said UI police will continue to work alongside the ICPD, but that their primary concern would be closer to university interests.

“What happens in the outlying neighborhoods will be the concern of the Iowa City Police Department,” Green said. “Our focus will be the downtown area.”

During most of last year UI police officers put in substantial overtime in the downtown area to combat violence in the Pedestrian Mall. Green said this year the department also added a regular shift to the downtown area on Wednesday through Saturday nights even before any discussion of the 21-ordinance had begun.

Recently the Iowa City Downtown Association announced that eight surveillance cameras would be installed in the Pedestrian Mall to add extra security to the area.

Brotherton said the cameras could be a benefit for police during times when information about an incident is limited.

“It’s a good positive step,” Brotherton said. “Anything is an assistance to us.”

Green also said the cameras could benefit the department’s operations but said it’s often difficult to accurately identify an individual because of the poor video quality and said the effectiveness of the cameras acting as a deterrent to crime would vary for each individual.

Getting home safe

Another public safety concern has always been what happens to people after they leave the downtown area and head for home. With people potentially going to more house parties as a result of the 21-ordinance, some people are worried about the safety of dark neighborhood streets away from the busy downtown area.

Apart from taxis, the UI offers a Cambus Saferide service that runs until 2:25 am on Friday and Saturday nights. The UI Department of Public Safety also offers a Nite Ride van service that operates until 3:00 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

But ever since Nite Ride was first introduced there has been controversy over the fact that the service is only available to women. Many people have argued that the service should be expanded to include safe transportation for men.

Former UI Student Government President Mike Currie succeeded in extending the service’s hours during finals week last winter, but was unsuccessful in achieving his main goal of establishing a male Nite Ride.

UI sophomore Evan Willhite is among the supporters of a male Nite Ride and said the issue is more about safety than equality.

“Some type of transportation should be available for males as well as women,” Willhite said. “The university should do everything it can to maintain the safety of its students.”

Green said an Eastside Saferide Loop through the neighborhood close to campus was added in September in direct response to the calls for a male transportation service.

Green said he was unsure how much use the new route is getting, but said the department’s plans are firm.

“We have no plans to expand Nite Ride,” Green said.

Safety is personal

Both Green and Brotherton said their departments would continue to do everything in their power to keep Iowa City residents safe in the aftermath of the 21-ordinance, but stressed the need for people to take responsibility for their own safety.

Brotherton suggested traveling in groups to avoid conflicts on the walks home from house parties and said it’s important to be aware of how much you’re drinking and recognize potentially harmful situations.

“To me it doesn’t matter if they’re downtown or at a party,” Brotherton said. “If they’re over-consuming, they’re putting themselves in a dangerous situation.”

For a look at some of the health concerns surrounding the 21-ordinance, click here.

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