Some members of Morgantown’s City Council met today with the city’s fire chief, fire marshall and police chief, as well as several representatives from West Virginia University to discuss how to prevent students from setting street fires.
The thing they all agreed on – the culture needs to change.
Morgantown City Manager Terrance Moore started the meeting by saying it was originally meant to be for officials to discuss protocols and follow-up strategies for the fires that were set during St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Morgantown. They then extended the invitation to some property owners and representatives from West Virginia University.
City and university officials are used to fires taking place after games, but St. Patrick’s Day took them by surprise, Moore said.
“It’s gotten to a point where Morgantown is having this expeience not because of WVU students specifically, but because of the reputation,” Moore said. “[The problem has gone] above and beyond WVU students, and it’s been that way for a while.”
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston was given the floor first. He said the department had every available resource out working the night of St. Patrick’s Day – day and afternoon shifts stayed over and the evening shift came in early. The city currently has 62 police officers.
One thing he wanted to make clear is how officers handle situations like a large crowd of people rioting. In videos posted online, people can be seen throwing objects at officers. Preston was asked why those people weren’t arrested.
“We don’t have the manpower to make all those arrests,” Preston said.
When an officer makes an arrest, that takes them off the streets patrolling for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Instead, officers try to stop or clear out the large crowd first, then address smaller issues.
Preston said he still had reserves he didn’t have to use, but he wasn’t satisfied with conduct of rioters or the results. Tear gas and bean bags were not used to clear out the crowds because overreaction would have escalated the situation.
Deputy Mayor Bane then asked if the police were helping the firefighters because some were being restricted from reaching fires and had objects thrown at them.
Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Casavasos said that was a common occurrence for them.
However, there were several areas where firefighters and police officers were on the scene working together, Preston said.
Preston blamed the culture of Morgantown for making people think it’s acceptable to burn couches, pointing out that businesses sell candles in the shape of couches (see below).
“We’re allowing and perpetuating this culture,” Preston said. “One bad weekend is only symptomatic of the culture.”
Corey Farris, WVU Director of Housing and Interim Dean of Students, said the university is not happy with the incidents, and that it’s not what they’re teaching students to do.
According to the student code of conduct, the university can take actions against students who break the law on or off campus. Once it has been reported to the university that a student has broke the law, the student is sent an e-mail, and within about two weeks will have to attend a student conduct hearing. The decision is then made whether or not to suspend or expel the student.
The university and city police alert the university when students break the law. Farris said they also catch students through posts on Facebook and by reading the newspaper.
Assistant Vice President of University Communications Becky Lofstead said that the university needs to be more proactive by publicizing the number of students who are expelled or suspended so that students understand that there are consequences.
Both Farris and WVU Police Chief Bob Roberts agreed that alcohol is the reason fires are started.
There were “far less problems” when bars were open to 2 a.m. instead of 3 a.m., Roberts said. Now the WVU police are doing more DUI arrests than ever.
“You have a tradition,” Casavasos said. “As much as you don’t want it, you have it. It’s not going away. I can see it carrying on 20, 30, 40 years.
“The problem won’t go to sleep following large scale events. We’ll continue to have this problem. We have to change this culture. The more we try to push it, the more they’ll do it. This is becoming a culture with them and a way to celebrate.”
Chief Casavasos had three suggestions to reduce fires:
- Give jail time for setting fires
- Double fines from $1,000 to $2,000
- Bring in the West Virginia State Fire Marshall because they are able to make arrests, unlike the city fire marshal
He continued to say that over the 14-15 years he’s served as a firefighter, the biggest problem is house parties, and he’s seeing them grow. He’s pulled 200-300 people out of two-bedroom apartments, and at one residence in Sunnyside there were 1,000 people inside.
The issue with having so many people in the houses is that the overcrowding could cause the house to collapse. Many of the houses are very old and aren’t built to hold that amount of people.
Bane expressed his concern already over next year’s home game against the University of Oklahoma and what kind of chaos will occur if WVU wins. He suggested a campaign going into the next school year that would show statistics of students suspended/expelled for setting fires.
Lofstead said they are already in process of doing something along those lines.
Hearings will begin next week for students arrested during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.