Undercover officers cause widespread panic for some before concertPosted: February 24, 2011
They’re taking a crack at weeding out the dopes.
Athens-Clarke County Police teamed up with the University of Georgia Police Department earlier this month to crack down on illegal drug use before the first of a two-concert engagement for Widespread Panic at the Classic Center. The undercover investigation landed about a dozen people behind bars.
“We don’t do that for every concert,” said University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson, adding that the practice isn’t even done once a year. “I like Widespread Panic music, but the crowd that follows them, we do see a good use of drugs.”
Williamson said each department dispatched about 15 officers Feb. 10, each charged with the task of curbing illegal drug use by attempting to purchase the substance outside the Classic Center. The departments dispatched plainclothes officers to purchase marijuana and Ecstasy from suspected dealers.
He said the goal wasn’t to nab everyone who’d been using drugs per se, but to use discretion and “find people out there with a criminal enterprise.”
“The main emphasis that night was to catch people who were distributing and selling drugs,” he said, adding that not everyone who had used drugs before the concert was arrested.
But when it comes to curtailing cannabis in the Classic City, how do the police manage to walk the fine line between keeping Athens’ citizens safe while not stereotyping the fans of specific musicians?
“I’ve got a problem with it but I understand why they would,” said Michael Barone, a UGA student and Widespread Panic fan who has seen the band in concert about 10 times, including one at the Classic Center several years ago. “However, Widespread Panic fans, they’re not hurting anybody.”
Williamson said that the situation is different for campus events, which never draw as many people or as much drug activity.
At the Classic Center, the number of hired security personnel fluctuates depending on the age of the fans, expected alcohol consumption and reputation, said Philip Verrastro, assistant executive director of the Classic Center.
In this “case-by-case” basis, patrons suspected of being under the influence of anything that causes them to be disruptive or incapacitated are given three options: have a sober friend drive them home, accept a taxi ride paid for by the venue or deal with the police.
The third option, he said, “rarely happens.”
He said the venue has no official stance on the undercover investigations and pays little attention to what law enforcement is doing outside the Classic Center walls.
“We simply are doing concerts and shows,” he said. “We’re making sure people who are coming to our shows are having a good time.”
This month wasn’t the first time undercover officers descended to the Classic Center in preparation for a Widespread Panic concert. In 2007, twenty people were arrested during a similar operation. In 1998, there were more than 200 drug arrests when the band played a concert in the streets of Athens to film a music video.
As for the stereotyping, Williamson said “it all depends.”
“There are some groups that have a much younger following,” he said, citing increased police presence when a band has a following more closely associated with drug use. “[It’s] basically on a historic perspective.”
Williamson said the actions stemmed from the community wanting law enforcement to take increased action against drug use.
However, he added that actions by law enforcement to arrest people dealing drugs may not be decreasing drug use in Athens.
“I’m not necessarily of the opinion that arrests are necessarily a cause and effect,” he said. “I’m not convinced there is always a reduction. The people who are gonna do wrong are gonna violate the law.”
Undercover operations can decrease use if there is a large epidemic, but the main focus of the police is to uphold the law and spread accountability, he said.
“I do not want it to be a police state,” he said. “There has to be some accountability, and we typically try to deal with just the most extreme folks.”
Mike Hunsinger, drug task force manager for ACCPD, declined to comment for the story.
Barone said he understands why law enforcement would target Widespread Panic fans: the prevalence of drugs at the band’s shows.
“But at the same time it’s a dick move,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to have a good time.”