As fans pour out of bars and restaurants Saturday, following the University of Kentucky's game against rival Louisville, they will be greeted by an intimidating sight: dozens, possibly hundreds, of police officers in riot gear.
Police decked out in black body armor holding shields, batons and pepperball guns, which use compressed air to fire capsules of pepper spray, have become the norm in recent years following NCAA Tournament matches.
The officers are often greeted with curious stares and whispers from fans, and partiers carrying open beers typically give them a wide berth.
However, as long as the crowd keeps their excitement in check, there is no reason to fear the armada, police have said.
"As long as everybody is having a safe time and behaving themselves, we just want to watch the party," Lexington police Cmdr. Kelli Edwards said.
The officers will most likely be stationed on the 300 block of South Limestone, and the corners of Woodland and Euclid Avenues, where the biggest crowds have historically grouped.
While they cut an imposing figure, the officers aren't there to scare anyone. In fact, police urge partiers to interact with them — even take photos with them — as long as the cops aren't in "enforcement mode," such as making an arrest or trying to disperse an unruly group, she said.
"They're there to make sure everybody stays safe and has a good time," she said. "They are approachable, you can talk to them or take pictures with them."
Police undergo crowd-control training consistently, she said. Once or twice annually, dozens of officers in riot gear meet to practice formations and commands.
During training, police are taught the value of restraint and patience, Edwards said. History has proved attempts at crowd control can make unruly crowds worse, she said, as protesters and revelers could lash out over what they perceive as unnecessary force.
Force — even non-lethal — is a last resort, she said, and police do not expect Saturday's crowds to become so unruly that mass arrests will occur.
"We will try a lot of other things, a lot of verbal commands, to get the crowd to comply before we would resort to force," she said.
However, the unexpected can occur, and police are prepared for that as well, she said.
UK game celebrations can quickly take on a life of their own.
On April 1, 1996, crowds took to the streets after UK won the national championship against Syracuse. Cars were crushed; police officers and bystanders were hit with rocks and bottles; and a television news van was overturned and set ablaze.
Though Saturday's game against the University of Louisville is not a championship game, it has the potential to draw the biggest crowds in the city's history. It is the first time two Kentucky universities, let alone two harsh rivals such as UK and U of L, have vied for a spot in the championship.
No officials have ventured a guess as to how many people could participate in street parties, and Edwards would not say how many officers are being tapped for crowd control. All officers are on call.
"If we have to call everybody in, we'll call everybody in," she said.
Edwards and Lexington fire department Battalion Chief Ed Davis spoke Friday during an hourlong segment of the Kruser and Krew show on WVLK 590-AM, giving last-minute reminders to people who planned to party Saturday. City and UK officials had also urged fans repeatedly through the week to keep cool after the historic game.
Shouting, dancing and drinking will be tolerated. Setting fires, throwing objects and damaging property will not.
"We and the police department intend to be very tolerant. Everyone can party and have fun," Davis said. "When it crosses the line, that's when we'll take action."
Typically, the majority of the crowd does not cause problems, he said.
"There's always a couple of bad apples," he said. "We're just hoping the bad apples won't influence the rest of the crowd."
Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197Twitter: @HLPublicSafety