Lexington police rely on experience, training to prepare for Final Four crowds

jkegley@herald-leader.comApril 1, 2011 

On April 1, 1996, crowds took to the streets in downtown Lexington. Cars were crushed; police officers and bystanders were hit with rocks and bottles; and a television news van was overturned.

When day broke April 2, the area looked ragged. Shards of broken glass covered parking lots, and paper blew in the wind as city workers cleaned up the mess and assessed the damage.

As Wildcats fans might know, the destruction didn't come from protest or civil unrest — it was a celebration. The University of Kentucky men's basketball team won the NCAA championship against Syracuse that night, and the crowd went wild. Twenty-five people were arrested, and police asked for the public's help identifying dozens of troublemakers who appeared in photos and video of the chaos.

"The kids just got out of control down around the Euclid area," former police officer Tommy Puckett recalled. "Every officer available was brought in."

For the majority of fans, who didn't participate in or even witness the destruction, the night UK won the title is a cherished memory.

For police, it was a valuable lesson in crowd control. They put it to good use when UK won the national championship in 1998, when there was little trouble.

Saturday's game against the University of Connecticut marks the first time UK has made it to the Final Four since 1998's title run. Celebrations are already being planned, and it will be no surprise if they spill into the streets. Police say they aren't predicting a repeat of the mayhem that blurred the line between celebration and riot in 1996, but they express confidence in their ability to deal with it if necessary.

"We're not expecting that that's going to happen — but if in the off chance there were something to happen like that, we're much more prepared," police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

Roberts said officers gain crowd control experience at each event they monitor, including events such as the World Equestrian Games and Spotlight Lexington, which went off without a hitch last fall.

Police check social networking sites such as Facebook to judge where people plan to be.

Lexington and UK police have been planning for the game's aftermath for days. UK Police Chief Joe Monroe said he had been in meetings 70 percent of the day, every day this week.

Monroe said 1996 is often discussed when preparing for the aftermath of big games. The celebration provided a vivid example of how quickly a crowd can form.

Puckett said the sheer swiftness of the mob's assembly was part of the reason things turned riotous. Police weren't expecting violence during what should have been good-natured gatherings.

"It got kind of out of control before we had a good presence down there," Puckett said.

Former Lexington police chief Anthany Beatty, who is now UK's assistant vice president for campus services, recalled lessons learned from sports celebrations dating to 1978, when fans stormed the airport, causing minor property damage.

Fans climbed on railings and fixtures to glimpse the team arriving at the airport after winning the NCAA title against Duke.

But the melee in 1996 made 1978 seem tame. Police learned excited fans might decide to climb utility poles seemingly for the fun of it, even if it wouldn't help them see the team.

"It really overwhelmed us," Beatty said. "We learned a lot about crowd control then."

Police have not said what they are doing to prepare for Saturday's potential crowds. A news conference is planned for Friday morning to detail some enforcement plans and offer suggestions to revelers about ways to stay safe while having fun.

Some fans who were among those who took to the streets in '96 said that they would do it again in a heartbeat and that they did not see the destruction that made headlines in following days.

"It was a great atmosphere with people having a great time. I didn't see any of the damages or injuries, with the exception of some damage to a car or two," said Tom Walker, a Seattle resident who was a Tates Creek High School senior at the time.

"What I witnessed was just good clean celebrating," said Shannon Hart, a UK graduate who spent April 1, 1996, on Woodland Avenue, the masses' ground zero.

"The worst thing that happened to me was losing my favorite hat at the time," she said.

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