'St. Fratty's Day' party caught SLO police off guard before dawn

These photos show the scene before and after a roof collapsed Saturday, March 7, on Hathway Street near Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
These photos show the scene before and after a roof collapsed Saturday, March 7, on Hathway Street near Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Courtesy of SLO Police Department

The San Luis Obispo Police Department was unprepared for the scope of Saturday’s massive “St. Fratty’s Day” party near Cal Poly and was in the process of requesting mutual aid when a garage roof loaded with students collapsed, according to Chief Steve Gesell and police logs from that morning.

At least eight people were injured when the structure collapsed at 364 Hathway Ave. about 90 minutes after the first complaint about a party was received. About 3,000 students and college-age individuals had descended on the neighborhood from campus and the nearby area, beginning early in the morning.

“We were not prepared for it,” Gesell said.

He said the number of officers on duty that morning was lower than usual because the department received “loose information” from Cal Poly that there might be several smaller parties Saturday night. The department had adjusted its staffing accordingly.

When the first calls arrived at 4:35 a.m. Saturday notifying them of a large party on the 1200 block of Murray Avenue, adjacent to the Cal Poly campus, there were five patrol officers on duty, Gesell said.

Ultimately, he said, a total of 18 San Luis Obispo police officers participated in the response at one point or another. The Sheriff’s Office sent six deputies, and Atascadero sent one police officer. CHP also sent three patrol cars to help control the crowd.

Officers did not go into the event armed with special gear, so as to avoid escalating the situation, Gesell said, noting that that would have placed students and the officers on scene in danger.

“These situations bring out the potential for violence,” Gesell said, noting the city’s Mardi Gras riot in 2004. “We do not want to repeat that page of history. We do not want another riot.”

Asked whether officers responded quickly enough to the report of up to 50 students on the garage roof about 17 minutes before it collapsed, Gesell said not only do officers not have a current law to cite, but it is not reasonable to expect a small number of officers to keep an entire block under control while ordering inebriated people off a roof.

“There’s currently no legal remedy to order them off the roof,” Gesell said. “And then you’re talking about infusing a few cops into a live mob, each one with a liability on their hip — their gun.”

In all, the department received 10 reports of noisy parties, as well as one report of a theft, one report of an abandoned vehicle and several calls for medical assistance between 4:35 a.m. and noon, according to incident reports.

Police made two arrests for public intoxication and issued a total of four citations for minors in possession of alcohol, two for noise, two for open alcohol containers and two for public urination.

Lessons for future

Hathway Avenue has been home to “St. Fratty’s Day” for years, including 2014 when cellphone footage captured a woman slipping and falling off another roof.

Gesell said a major lesson learned is that police and university officials need to be more proactive in keeping tabs on social media for upcoming large-scale events before they spin out of control.

“Enforcement alone solves very few problems,” Gesell said.

One option the department had already been investigating, Gesell said, are several Internet-based contract services that can select a geographic region and scan a host of public social media sites for keywords.

Such an operational tool could be rather inexpensive and would not require City Council approval, Gesell said.

‘Brewfing’ ordinance

Mayor Jan Marx is expected to ask her fellow council members Tuesday whether they would support pursuing an ordinance to ban people from congregating on rooftops.

Marx said she’s periodically seen students “brewfing” — a term apparently coined in San Luis Obispo to refer to drinking on a roof — and was interested in investigating whether the city could respond to it.

When contacted for comment on Marx’s idea, council members John Ashbaugh, Carlyn Christianson and Dan Rivoire said they wanted to hear more details before discussing it further, but two of them expressed some concerns. Councilman Dan Carpenter declined to comment.

Christianson said she would carefully consider any legislation brought forward, but added: “I think that legislating against one dumb choice at a time is not a particularly effective way to approach this serious, serious problem.

“I am much more concerned about these very large unexpected gatherings occurring at all,” she continued, “especially, of course, with drinking involved, where the chance of injury to participants, residents, safety personnel and property is much greater than at smaller or planned events.”

Ashbaugh said such an ordinance could give the city another enforcement tool but would prevent a couple from climbing on their roof to watch the sunset, for example.

“I don’t want to make it too onerous on people,” he said. “The big picture here is how do we get back on track improving our town/gown relations?”

He suggested a party registration ordinance requiring students to get permission from their neighbors before throwing parties of a certain size.

Currently, the city has a special events permit that is required when 300 or more people gather at any public park or city street, sidewalk or other right-of-way.

Rivoire said he thought “the intent of limiting large gatherings on rooftops makes perfect sense to me” but declined to comment further on Marx’s idea.

The city’s existing ordinances, including its unruly gathering rules, are “really quite powerful, and to be effective we need to make sure we’re applying those ordinances and ticketing when appropriate,” he said.

But more work also needs to be done to build mutual respect between short- and long-term residents, he said, and include a focus on personal responsibility.

Marx also wondered whether the city’s fines for certain violations, which increase during certain times of the year, should be revisited.

“The doubling of fines … is to a certain extent effective, but is that a trigger for anti-social student-age people to time their mob invasions of neighborhoods?” she said. “Perhaps the fines need to be higher.”

On Marx’s proposed ordinance, Gesell said it could provide officers with a valuable tool, but it would need to be enforceable.

Dual investigations

The Police Department and the university are continuing to investigate Saturday’s incident, the latter attempting to find whether fraternities and sororities — which are all currently on social probation — organized the event.

Gesell also said information may lead to the event’s principal organizers, who could face possible citations.

Though none of the local fraternity or sorority houses officially hosted any parties linked to the event, many homes on Hathway Avenue and nearby streets are known to house Greek community members, Gesell said. But it is difficult to determine who organized which gathering.

“The city’s relationship with (Cal Poly) President Jeff Armstrong and his administration is very, very productive and has yielded results, but there’s still a long way to go, especially in the neighborhoods immediately around Cal Poly,” Gesell said.

On Thursday, Cal Poly will hold a campus forum to discuss “how student behaviors impact the community and the future value of your Cal Poly degree.” The forum will be held from 11 a.m. to noon at the Rec Center.

TIMELINE:  How police responded to the party

The following is from incident logs and information provided by the SLO Police Department:

4:44 a.m.: All five officers on duty respond to the 200 block of Hathway Avenue to cite a noise violation.

4:52 a.m.: Officers respond to an apartment complex on the 200 block of California Boulevard after apartment management reports an unruly crowd of about 30 people in a courtyard.

5:15 a.m.: Officers begin to see large numbers of people walking toward Hathway Avenue from campus.

5:21 a.m.: Police respond to the intersection of Hathway Avenue and Bond Street after about 100 people congregate in the street.

5:45 a.m.: The sole University Police Department officer on duty notifies the San Luis Obispo Police Department of a mass migration from campus dorms to Hathway Avenue.

6:01 a.m.: Report received of about 500 people in the street at Foothill Boulevard near campus. Police supervisor on duty requests mutual aid from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, the Atascadero Police Department, the University Police Department and the CHP.

6:04 a.m.: Police receive report from a resident on Hathway Avenue asking for assistance removing people from a roof.

6:21 a.m.: The roof on a detached garage collapses, multiple calls are made for medical assistance.

Between 7:51 and 8:33 a.m.: Police respond to two more reports of noisy parties and one theft, and investigate three possible alcohol violations in the area immediately around Hathway Avenue.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune