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Party foul: Finals, threats of fines, and St. Fratty's Day make for a slow St. Patrick's Day

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View a slideshow of St. Patrick's Day 2015 in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Bruce is having a rough morning.

It’s a little after 9:30 a.m. when Lt. Bill Proll arrives at a small parking lot that juts off an alley near City Hall in downtown San Luis Obispo. The first thing we see are the shoes peeking out from behind a nearby parked car.

“Yup,” Proll says, “looks like a person that had too much.”

- FIRST ARREST:  A man on his 21st birthday made for the first downtown arrest on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, after he reportedly threw a water bottle across the street. -  - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • FIRST ARREST: A man on his 21st birthday made for the first downtown arrest on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, after he reportedly threw a water bottle across the street.

When the paramedics arrive, Bruce is still sprawled out in one of the spaces, his head lying in the dirt as a woman from the nearby office watches officials tend to the unconscious 20-something sleeping off his early-morning celebration.

Paramedics cluster around Bruce and begin outfitting him with medical equipment. They take his blood pressure. They attach EKG monitors. They ask him questions about the president and whether he knows which city he’s in. They ask him if he’s been taking any drugs, how much he had to drink, what he was drinking, and where he was drinking. They ask him his name. Bruce’s eyes remain closed, and he doesn’t appear to be giving up a lot of useful information, but he’s able to give his name and the correct answers to some of the questions.

“Hey, Bruce,” one of the paramedics prods him. “You need to tell me what’s going on, dude.”

One of the paramedics asks if Bruce has anyone he can call. Bruce reaches into his pocket, pulls out nothing, but places his empty hand against his ear. A few of the paramedics start to snicker.

“Who are you talking to?” one of the paramedics asks, as Bruce continues to wait for the friend to answer on the other end of his hand phone.

The good news: Bruce isn’t injured, he can answer the paramedics’ questions, and he’s not taking an expensive ambulance ride. The bad news: He will be taking a ride with the police standing nearby.

Bruce’s makes arrest No. 2 for the morning. And about 3 1/2 hours into St. Patrick’s Day, 2015, the cops patrolling downtown can’t stop talking about how mellow it is.

Maybe it’s because of finals at Cal Poly. It might also be because it’s a Tuesday. Or perhaps it had something to do with that massive party at Cal Poly that made national headlines when a roof collapsed two weekends earlier, under the weight of about 30 revelers, 10 of whom ended up in the hospital. And there’s a chance that most of the celebrating already took place the previous weekend during what local police learned had been dubbed “St. Practice Day.”

A few hours before getting the call to check on Bruce, Proll gave the pre-St. Patty’s briefing in a back room tucked in the bottom corner of the SLO Police Department.

“Detective,” Proll said, greeting a tall, mustachioed man as he walked to take a seat along with about 20 other uniformed officers in a ring of tables. Earlier in the morning, Proll told me that St. Patrick’s Day requires a larger show of force than usual, which means some detectives get pulled away from their normal work, stuffed into a uniform they rarely wear, and sent out to patrol downtown. Some of them enjoy the opportunity to hit the streets in uniform; others don’t.

The detective grunted in response to Proll’s greeting. The lieutenant turned to me and New Times photographer Kaori Funahashi and whispered with a playful grin: “He’s one of the grumpy ones.”

Other cops playfully busted each others’ balls before heading downtown. It was very much a boys’ club, with just a handful of women spread through the ranks.

“Welcome back,” one officer said as another walked in.

“Thank you,” he answered. “It’s good to be back; back in black.”

The guys poked fun at the few detectives outfitted in uniforms. One yelled across the room, “Oh, I miss the green track suit.” Another guy pulled out his cell phone and, chuckling to himself, took a photo of the detective in uniform, who glared back.

Then Proll wrangled the room for a short briefing.

“Our goal today is to allow people to have fun down there,” he said, “but not make the bad decisions and embarrass themselves and get in fights and whatnot.”

This will be the theme throughout the day: Don’t get hung up on the little things; let people have fun, but don’t let someone off the hook who is clearly going to be a problem later. Throughout the day of our ride-along, this is exactly what happens. Things the average person might think would kick in a cop’s lay-down-the-law instincts go by unnoticed—girls pose for pictures in the street in between spurts of traffic; groups pose for pictures with cops walking the block—but the people who’ve crossed the line between fun and pending-shitstorm are descended upon and ushered into cabs and the backs of police cars.

“Maybe my entire career I’ve written five jaywalking tickets,” Proll tells me later.

Usually, he tries to discourage bad behavior. That’s one of the main reasons so many police are walking the streets today: The sight of uniformed officers at every corner helps keep everything copacetic.

Proll, for example, is on a first-name basis with many of the downtown regulars. He waves at bouncers in the early-morning hours and pulls over his car occasionally when they flag him down to talk shop.

Outside Mo Tav, he chats with a solidly built bouncer with a face covered in orange whiskers. This is one of the jokesters around town, Proll tells me, and the bouncer tries to get a rise out of the lieutenant, who isn’t playing along, maybe because of the reporter and photographer in the car.

“All right, man,” the bouncer groans. “Don’t stop if you don’t want to be harassed.”

- HELLO?:  After officers rousted a man who had been found sleeping in a downtown parking lot, he attempted to call a friend to let him know what had happened … but he failed to notice there was no phone in his hand. -  - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • HELLO?: After officers rousted a man who had been found sleeping in a downtown parking lot, he attempted to call a friend to let him know what had happened … but he failed to notice there was no phone in his hand.

Proll has been with the department for 30 years. He does a few quick calculations in his head and figures he could retire in about two years, but he’s not in any hurry to go anywhere.

But he shifts the conversation immediately, telling me this isn’t about him; it’s about St. Patrick’s Day. The problem is that St. Patrick’s Day 2015 is quiet. Real quiet.

It’s damn near comatose.

In a lot of ways, it’s dead.

A few men and women amble along the sidewalks and filter into mostly empty bars. Throughout the morning, other cops walking the streets talk about how mellow it is; Proll scans the crowds, looking for telltale signs of trouble, but can’t see much. Standing at the mouth of an alley that dumps into Garden Street, he catches a guy with a cigarette pressed between his lips and tells him it’s not allowed to smoke in public in SLO. For a moment, the guy looks like he’s wondering whether the smoke is worth the price of the ticket, then gives up, packs the cigarette, and walks down the block.

Later, while standing next to Bubblegum Alley and eyeing the crowds that have now begun to hop from bar to bar, a pair of women walks by.

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” one yells to Proll.

“You too,” he says.

“Holla!” the other girl shouts.

Proll turns to me: “That’s why today is a really interesting day.”

He says that in past years, “it’s been a zoo.” Those years in particular drew out local neighborhood groups, the members of which walked around snapping photos of various shenanigans as evidence provided to city officials about why they need to crack down harder on the holiday and downtown drinking in general. But Proll points out physical signs that the bar owners are self regulating: portable toilets. There’s also a strong rapport between police and bar staff, he says.

On this day, it takes about 2 1/2 hours before the department makes its first arrest. Paul Murray, a local cab driver who’s been working in SLO for about 3 1/2 years, flags down some officers to report that the guy across the street wearing an A’s baseball hat had taken a bottle of water and flung it across the street. His shirt was also covered in vomit, and Murray could see the guy was already a mess just a few hours in.

A few officers navigate across Higuera where the man is wobbling in place. They swoop in around him and soon have him in handcuffs and into the back of a van. It’s his 21st birthday.

Murray tells me he used to work nights, but now he takes the early morning to early afternoon shift; it’s quieter. And he doesn’t like dealing with drunk passengers. When they puke in his car, he has to charge them $50 (there’s a notice printed on the side of his cab), then lose valuable time to clean out the car when he could be picking up passengers instead. He’d just returned from taking another guy home after police told that guy to go home or go to jail. Once in the car, the guy argued that he didn’t want to go home and challenged Murray to arm wrestle him for the chance to go back downtown.

Murray says he waited for the guy to hold out his arm, then grabbed him by the wrist, pulled him out of the cab, flipped the car around, and took off in the other direction.

“He flipped me off,” Murray laughs.

A few minutes after telling that story, Proll and Capt. Chris Staley spot another guy who’s also swaying from side to side. Officers again swarm in, but this time they talk with the guy for a few minutes before putting him in Murray’s cab.

By the end of the day, the department had netted nine arrests for public intoxication (one more than the year prior), five citations for open containers (the same as the year prior), and no DUIs (three fewer than the year prior).

St. Fratty’s Day caught the department a little off guard, mostly because it was organized without raising the usual red flags on social media.

- SOUND OF SILENCE:  Most St. Patrick’s Day holidays fill the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo with revelers, but 2015 resulted in a historically quiet holiday, according to Lt. Bill Proll (pictured). -  - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • SOUND OF SILENCE: Most St. Patrick’s Day holidays fill the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo with revelers, but 2015 resulted in a historically quiet holiday, according to Lt. Bill Proll (pictured).

“We were kind of surprised that that many people got together without us knowing,” Proll says.

According to Staley, the department is in talks with city officials on how to handle the reaction to SLO’s “safety enhancement zone,” first enacted in 2009. City officials established larger fines for violations that police hand out on certain holidays and events typically associated with alcohol. In mid-2013, the city expanded the program so that now anyone ticketed on St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Mardi Gras, Cal Poly move-in week, and the Week of Welcome can get hit with increased fines.

The problem: Many people are just moving the parties. The result has been bigger parties on off days when fines aren’t as steep and, most recently, St. Fratty’s Day occurring more than a week before the actual holiday.

(Earlier in the morning, one bouncer told Proll there were only three people in his bar. “Not like Saturday,” he said, adding, “Last year was horrible.”)

And this year, on the day SLO PD made its presence most known downtown for the actual St. Patrick’s Day, very little actually happened.

“We planned for [it as if] it was a big one just because we needed to do that in case it does turn out to be a busy day,” Staley explained a few days after the holiday. 

All’s quiet on the Poly front

Sgt. Shawn Bishop apologizes for the lack of action. Then he stops himself, because he’s not hoping for something bad to happen; it’s just that he kind of thought something would happen.

Bishop is a low-key kind of guy who’s just about one year into his job with the Cal Poly University Police Department. His brother’s a cop, and his dad was in the military, which is how Bishop first started his career. From there, he took a job with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department for eight years before shifting into a 10-year stint with the Fresno Police Department, and another two years with the U.S. Marshals.

It’s his first St. Patrick’s Day in SLO, he said, and actually his first ride along, too. And SLO is definitely safer than where he was working a year ago.

“One thing that’s different about here than Fresno is that people wave at you,” he says, “with all their fingers.”

Bishop spends the evening, beginning a little before 6 p.m., cruising campus, circling out into the surrounding neighborhoods and occasionally through downtown, then into the winding country lanes that course around the outskirts of campus like a circulatory system of dirt roads. Most nights, he likes to cruise along one of the popular jogging trails and flash his lights into the bushes to scare off anyone who may be hiding in search of a victim. There was the night he had a close call with a mountain lion, he thinks, or it might have been a bear—but it was definitely something big that ran past him in the dark. He goes spelunking into the creek where a concrete graffiti-plastered tunnel has become a regular magnet for trespassers and drug activity.

But tonight; nothing.

He wasn’t working the morning of the now-infamous St. Fratty’s Day roof collapse. And while he wants the “kids to have a good time,” when it hits the level of thousands of people, “it’s kind of scary.”

Tonight, his best guess is that the combination of Cal Poly finals, the fact that it’s a weekday, and the incident a few weekends ago has resulted in a quiet evening for most students. Only a few students meander in the surrounding neighborhoods where most houses are silent and dark.

“I would imagine it probably scared a whole lot of them, to be honest with you,” Bishop says.

He had some expectations before his shift started, but seems surprised at how completely quiet the streets are. Just before I head home for the night, Bishop gets a call on the radio. For a moment he thinks he’s got something interesting, but seconds later he flips the car back around.

“Nope,” he sighs. “Nothing.”

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

 

St. Patrick's Day 2015 was a relatively quiet affair. Nonetheless, a New Times writer and photographer accompanied police on a ride along to provide a firsthand account of the day.

PHOTOS BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

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