KALAMAZOO, Mich. —It was a chaotic weekend for police near the campus of Western Michigan University, with officers at one point saying they were forced to use pepper spray to break up a large crowd of party goers.
Students and others were out celebrating ‘Welcome Week,’ traditionally the time between people moving back to the area and classes starting up again, and police say it has become a bigger problem in recent years.
“You know when people do things that are not smart, there are consequences for those kinds of behaviors, and we’ll be working our way through that,” WMU President John Dunn said Tuesday.
Changes to the academic calendar to limit the amount of time between students returning to the area and classes starting up again could be an option, according to Dunn who didn’t provide any other specifics.
Assistant Chief Don Webster with the Kalamazoo Dept. of Public Safety said having a discussion with university officials about curbing ‘Welcome Week’ celebrations would be a step in the right direction to ensuring things don’t get more out of hand in the future.
“Hopefully we can come up with some type of solution that will benefit the students as well as the citizens of Kalamazoo,” he said, adding the issues with crowds and parties have become more pronounced in the past two years.
“Normally ‘Welcome Week’ dies right before the holiday weekend and most students are going home, but we’re finding over the last two years that students are staying over the weekend so that seems to be a part of the problem.”
Webster adding the eight nights of ‘Welcome Week’ requires about 6-8 additional officers to be brought on for patrols each night, leading to lengthy overtime and an overtaxed force.
“It’s extremely taxing, you have to bring in overtime officers to deal with the number of students that’s coming in and for eight nights straight the officers have been out there addressing the crowds and also for the safety of the students,” he said.
FOX 17 found several posts on social media commonly with hashtags like “Wastern” or “WMU Welcome Week” showing some of the huge crowds of partiers at a massive pool party and scenes from the street where police deployed tear gas late Saturday night to break up a crowd of between 300 and 400 people.
“When we get crowds of that magnitude, and you’re dealing with crowds and fights, the first defense for any officer is to use verbal commands to gain compliance through those means,” Webster said.
“The officers gave verbal warnings to clear the area, they went in to move the crowd at and that time some in the crowd began chanting and throwing bottles at the officers.”
Webster couldn’t immediately provide FOX 17 with the number of times KDPS responded to incidents requiring excessive force involving the use of pepper spray in the past year, but reiterated it’s a tactic the force does not use often.
“It is out of the ordinary, this is not something year-to-year ongoing that we’re using pepper spray to disperse,” he said. “This was unusual for this time of the year with the first week back at school for welcome week to disperse pepper spray.”
If changes were to be made to Western’s academic calendar to mitigate ‘Welcome Week’ drinking and partying, they’d join the ranks of other state universities like Michigan State, which in 2009 shortened its welcoming period from five days to three to reign in excessive student drinking.