This coming weekend marks yet another rite of spring . . .the annual passage that I refer to in a whisper (and certainly not for public proclamation) as the dreaded "M" word . . .(Mifflin). This "block" party has longstanding roots dating back to the anti-war protests of 1969. Historically, the event has been designated to coincide with the first Saturday of May, which draws a parallel to the French Student Rebellion of 1968. Although the volatile period of civil unrest in France had epic demonstrations and strikes which cut across both blue collar and academic environments, it was also a movement that incorporated elements of artistic and festive assemblies which resembled an almost campaign-like/Woodstock flavor. (This year is one of the anomalies of the calendar; the "non-event" takes place on Saturday, April 30th, since waiting until the subsequent Saturday would interfere with the pursuit of getting ready for exams at the UW).
This annual occurrence has certainly had it peaks and valleys over the years. Attendance has fluctuated from several hundreds to tens of thousands. Some years have found City support and sponsorships from various individuals and/or groups but that changed drastically after 1996. In 1996, as night fell on the waning hours of the party, a group bent on mischief started a large bonfire in the middle of the street which prompted MFD to respond. Once MFD began the process of putting out the flames, their efforts were impeded by some who hurled bottles and other projectiles. Police officers responded to assist our brothers and sisters in service and the incident continued to escalate. Ultimately, pepper spray was deployed in an effort to disperse what was now a rowdy crowd. Significant damage was done to the Fire Department's truck and twenty officers were injured before order was restored.
From roughly 1996-2011, various sponsors came forward and offered to manage this party, although insuring something of this scope and magnitude acted as a deterrent and taxpayers increasingly questioned the costs that were borne each year. Yet in 2011, the City did allow a street use permit and the event found itself a sponsor. Decent weather, youthful exuberance, and alcohol can be a daunting combination and the levels of intoxication and incapacitation grew rapidly. There were a number of arrests, two stabbing incidents, and another slough of injured officers. This was, in my opinion, a major turning point in terms of the City's express or implied support for the block party. A resolute City government determined that no street use permits would be granted henceforth and that the event was not going to be "sanctioned" in any meaningful way moving forward.
Given the checkered past of Mifflin, MPD has attempted to amp up our pro-active attempts to educate and mitigate. Educational outreach to property owners, residents, students, liquor stores, elected officials, campus liaisons, and media outlets are all contacted well in advance of the event. We try to explain, matter-of-factly, that the event is not sanctioned and what behavior(s) will be met with citations. We also provide tips on how to help keep a hosted party from becoming out of control and unruly and we are more than willing to help tenants and landlords deal with "problem" people and conduct that could potentially escalate. Our point of emphasis? Hold residents and guests accountable. To that end, many property owners and management companies will post "no trespassing" signage to prevent unwanted guests and tender signed letters requesting MPD to enforce trespass violations occurring on their lots and buildings. This has been an extremely effective tool to reduce the potential for overly large and raucous crowds from taking root at a given address.
From a mitigation standpoint, our staffing is such that we can be a presence from the early morning hours to the point of returning the street(s) to normal traffic flow . . .and our Special Events Team (SET) are masterful at meeting/greeting/and engaging the crowd as facilitators, first and foremost. The objective is not to be heavy-handed with enforcement; the goal(s) recognize that the party is going to take place whether we like it or not so parameters of expectations are transparently communicated in real time to those in attendance. Enforcement is not an end-all/cure-all, and in fact can compound problems. That said, seeing how these cops work each year, if you end up with a ticket after all of the options have been posted and explained, then you have certainly "earned" your souvenir ticket with a date for municipal court!
Mitigation has also been achieved over the years thanks to a student-sponsored and organized "Revelry" party hosted by the University of Wisconsin. "Revelry" has helped in diverting attention (and students) to an alternative music venue--away from Mifflin Street. This year, however, "Revelry" has been scaled back due to construction and budgetary constraints. "Revelry" will consist only of a concert for UW students (exclusively) at the Orpheum Theater during evening hours. The limitations of a much smaller venue leaves a void during the traditional hours of Mifflin---which could lead to a greater presence of individuals at the block parties with a wider window to consume more alcohol.
Through a combination of what I refer to as the three "E's" (Engagement/Education/Enforcement), this non-sanctioned/non-event has been less contentious the past few years and we have been better able to slowly reduce the party's historical stronghold on our staffing and overtime issues. Lacking a full-scaled alternative in "Revelry" this year, our staffing will go up as a result of the unknown implications. A five year comparison of various financial considerations is certainly trending in a "better" direction (from a taxpayer's standpoint), but even a relatively "benign" episode of Mifflin (in 2015, no major incidents were reported and "only" about forty citations were issued) can amount to a fiscal hit of over $90,000.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the support MPD has received from other City agencies, alders, and the Mayor. The planning and collaboration of this non-event is incredibly time-consuming and collaborative across the spectrum of various complementary units of City government. Having the assistance of the UW is also a big boost in creating an alternative event. Additionally, the Dane County Sheriff's Office and other suburban law enforcement agencies are also critical in supplementing our staffing needs. At the end of the day, every effort is made to maintain order and to protect people and property.
For years, my role at this event had been to supervise an arrest processing center. I must say, there are legions of people who use this event as a pretext for binge drinking. The level(s) of intoxication are abysmal and the treks to detox for those so incapacitated as to be incapable of taking care of themselves is always frightening. Officers can tell you stories of fights, sexual assaults, disorderly conduct, and using the streets as a public toilet. Most of these cases are the result of too much of that demon rum . . .Heck, I remember the time that several women had markings on their arms made by a Sharpie-like writing instrument. When I asked what the significance of the marking were, I was told that they had printed their names, addresses, and phone numbers in the event that they passed out and needed help in getting home!
This date has outlived its useful life and historical significance. MPD will continue to do our part in efforts to downsize and eliminate the event. We will partner with those stakeholders and collaborate with students to find a more suitable replacement. Mifflin continues to deliver a deleterious hit on staffing and overtime and certainly has all the earmarks of a very real public safety concern. While I am generally big on supporting "traditions," this is one "party" that would be better left behind as an institutional memory . . .
This blog was authored by Chief Koval, with assistance from Captain Carl Gloede.