That was the question facing Charlottesville Police Department Lieutenant Marc Brake and University Police Department Captain Chris Easton as they joined forces last summer to head up the security operation surrounding the annual Wertland Street block parties. Now an unofficial kickoff to the school year, this event draws up to 5,000 students for a night of roving celebration that brings more than its share of potential trouble along with a great opportunity to showcase the power of the partnership between the Charlottesville and University of Virginia Police Departments.
While the students may begin their event preparations on the Saturday morning of the parties, the respective departments begin plotting out their block party strategy as early as June. “You are looking at 70 different people who were involved in working this event,” Brake said. He added that the team went beyond just the CPD and UPD. “We worked closely with the Emergency Communications Center and the Fire Department as well, and both of those organizations played really important roles in our efforts.”
Perhaps the most important key to success is the communication that goes beyond the two departments. “There is a lot of discussion that goes on with Student Affairs,” he said, “and we have a good working relationship with Associate Dean of Students Laurie Casteen, so there is an open line there anytime if there is a question or any concern whatsoever.”
That communication also extends directly to the students. “It is really important that we get the word out to students to make responsible choices,” Easton said. One of the ways the departments do this is by going door to door on the day of the party or even a day prior. “We like to make the point that should anything go bad during the event, there is somebody they can communicate with.” The effort accomplishes a couple of important goals, Easton said. “First, it gives us a line to that person, but it also puts that house on notice that we are out there. We are not looking to dampen the mood, but it does not hurt to make it clear that we are going to have eyes and ears out there.”
Another benefit of the check-ins is that they allow officers to get eyes on potential structural issues. “One of the things we look for is the balconies,” Brake said. “People don’t realize that balconies are rated for a certain weight, and for a certain amount of people. That is something we need to be aware of. The students at that point are probably thinking that they need ice, and not about how many people are safe to put out on a balcony.”
Safety, of course, is the ultimate priority for all involved. And the ultimate measure of a plan lies in the results it yields, which in many cases can be measured more by what did not happen than by what did. In this case, and by these measures, the plan was a rousing success. “We had between 4,000 and 5,000 kids out there. And we did not have a single arrest,” Brake said. “But even more importantly, there were tons of rescue calls logged that evening, but none related to our particular event.”
Experience plays a role in this success, Easton said. “I know I have been doing this event for five or six years, and there were a lot more arrests back in the day. A big part of it, I have to believe, is the experience we have gained in managing the event, and the way it has evolved over these years so that the public and police and first responders have learned how to best manage it.”
Experiences like the Wertland Street block parties, Easton said, and the relationships that have been formed through their many collaborations, help the departments to work seamlessly together all year long. “I have known Marc for many years from working in side-by-side agencies. And that is true for the majority of our shift officers who are often dealing with the same situations and working the same crime scenes. So, there is a sense of partnership already built in. “We already know each other well,” Easton said. “When a situation like the Wertland Street parties, or even the National Championship celebration come up, we use those relationships and that understanding of how we all work, to our advantage.”
The Police Department supports the Boys & Girls Club Teen Program by sending officers to the Cherry Avenue Club from 7 to 11 p.m. during the summer. There is nothing quite like seeing a police officer on a Teen Night in the Club, smiling, shooting hoops, or riding a mechanical bull to humanize all officers for the kids. The Club appreciates its unique partnership with the CPD and CPF.