In the first of a series of planned crackdowns apparently targeting rock concert-goers, the Grant County Sheriff and the Washington State Patrol last weekend charged more than 1,000 people with crimes ranging from trespassing to sale and possession of narcotics.
"We've never issued this many citations before," Grant County Undersheriff Michael Shay said Thursday. "But this happened because there were just so many people there. The sheer mass, volume of people, I could have issued that many citations just for open containers, drinking in public and narcotics violations."
Rock fans attending a radio show concert featuring BLACKstreet and Salt-N-Pepa and two Phish shows at Washington State's Gorge Amphitheater over the Aug. 1-3 weekend were treated to an aggressive and what some are calling an unprecedented show of force by local and state police. More than 500 citation arrests on charges including driving under the influence, possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia, peddling without a license, theft, delivery of a controlled substance and criminal trespass, were reported by the Grant County Sheriff's office. At least 520 other traffic and criminal citations were handed out by the state police, according to law enforcement officials.
Shay, Undersheriff for Grant County said the massive number of arrests were a result of an "emphasis patrol" program coordinated by the Grant County Sheriff's Office in cooperation with the Washington State Patrol and Chelan County Sheriff's Office to crack down on drivers operating vehicles under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
The large number of arrests was a first for the 11-year-old venue, according to Jeff Trisler, Vice President of Universal Concerts, the owners and operators of the amphitheater. "It was a pure coincidence that this happened this weekend," said Trisler, who added that despite brutally hot temperatures there were no violent incidents at the Phish shows and only one medical transport during the concerts. He said that the arrests stem from a new zero-tolerance DUI policy just implemented by local law enforcement.
Last weekend's sting was just the beginning, according to the Sheriff's office, who said they have plans to stage crackdowns at two upcoming events at the Gorge. "The departments plan to stage similar efforts at the Lollapalooza show (Tuesday) and the Lynyrd Skynyrd show on Labor Day," Shay said.
The Amphitheater had been playing host to an urban radio show sponsored by KUBE on Friday night, featuring headliners BLACKstreet and Salt-N-Pepa, and two Phish concerts, on Saturday and Sunday nights. Phish fans, like those who followed the Grateful Dead over the years, have developed a reputation as stoners, or frequent recreational marijuana users.
The 500 sheriff's department arrests consisted mostly of citations, ranging from DUI to trespassing and possession and sale of drugs. Only 36 of the arrestees were taken to the county jail. Additionally, the Washington State Patrol issued up to 700 citations over the same period.
The crackdown, believed to be one of the largest of its kind at a rock concert, according to Shay, was made possible by a recent "mini-grant" from the state that allowed the sheriff's office to put more officers on patrol on an overtime basis. According to a booking form obtained from the Grant County Sheriff's office, only one DUI arrest was recorded by that office.
"Our main concern was to get people in there safely," said Shay about the area's only major concert venue -- located three hours from Seattle -- with only one road leading in and out. "And in doing that we concentrated on drunk drivers. In the past, we've lost a few at concerts because of speed and alcohol-related accidents."
In fact, two Phish concert-goers died over the weekend, one a 21 year-old man who fell out of a car window and broke his neck, the other a 19 year-old man who was rushed to the hospital with what the Associated Press reported was an apparent drug overdose. In both cases, however, the exact causes of death is still undetermined.
Phish's manager, John Paluska emphasized that the citations were issued over the three days and that there were no violent incidents at the Phish shows, although police reported that the KUBE show was marred by a stabbing. "I've been told that, in general, or statewide there's been additional funding put into traffic surveillance," Paluska said. "And that we haven't been singled-out. My understanding is that most of the citations were issued outside the venue, which is out of our control. I think if you wanted to go by the letter of the law, you could go to any concert, or any place for that matter, and write 500 citations, if you had that mind set."
Paluska said Phish's two-night stand, the first time the band has played the venue, was one of the most successful of the band's current tour, a sentiment echoed by Trisler, who said the Gorge "looks forward to having them back many, many, many more times."
Undersheriff Shay, who said he contacted, but did not cite, "more than 500" patrons about open containers and unlicensed peddling, said the amount of arrests were due to not just the high concentration of people attending the three shows, but also the massive amount of people camped at the Gorge base camp adjacent to the amphitheater. "Phish are unusual because of their following and that was a uniqueness we weren't prepared for," Shay said. "We're a 40-man police agency and there were 30-40,000 people at the base camp, which made it the largest city in our county for the weekend. And it had no law enforcement. Our largest city otherwise is 14,000 people."
Although statistics were not available from the Grant County Sheriff's Office on the breakdown of violations over the weekend, Tina Gonzalez, clerk typist for the Washington State Patrol's sixth district was able to give a rough breakdown of the State Patrol's arrests. Among the two groups of state troopers conducting emphasis patrols that resulted in more than 520 citations, 343 were for speeding, 185 for seatbelt violations and one for DUI.
While police and Phish's management company, Dionysian Productions, insist that Phish fans were not being specifically targeted, it wouldn't be the first time such a focused crackdown occurred. The forefathers of Phish, the Grateful Dead, began feeling increased attention from law enforcement nearly a decade ago after several incidents of violence at the band's shows. Subsequent police presence at shows led to a high number of arrests for a period during the Dead's tours. "The fact is, any musical organization that brings large groups of people together must cooperate with the police," said Dennis McNally, publicist for Grateful Dead Productions.
"We did what we thought we could do at the time, which was to try and remind our audience that there is no such thing as a liberated, 'happy' zone around the show where the rules of law, man, god and nature are suspended. Unfortunately, that's an illusion and we had to remind people of that," he added.
McNally attributed the new crackdown to a police need to justify demands for more patrols. "The police are bureaucratic in nature," he said. "And the more people they arrest, the bigger problem they can point to. Then they get a bigger budget. When they make a report, it doesn't differentiate whether the person was selling 500 tons of cocaine to crackheads or carrying two joints. Rock concerts are easy pickings."