Police use tear gas and pepper spray to disperse block party

Alex Sirney -- April 10th, 2010

4/12 Press conference updates
dumpster fire at block partyThe “Springfest” block party was broken up Saturday evening by police using tear gas and pepper spray after party-goers threw beer bottles and rocks at police officers.

The confrontation occurred in the Village Lane area of Harrisonburg during an annual block party that police estimate drew 8,000 revelers.

Criminal Investigation Division Commander Lt. Kurt Boshart said that while the incident was still under investigation, the understanding as of Sunday afternoon is that Harrisonburg police officers initially attempted to disperse the crowd with the handful of officers present after receiving calls from a property owner asking them to break up the party and after several party-goers were taken to the hospital and EMS and police had trouble accessing the area. Police had also received reports of property damage.

Boshart said that the gathering had grown to “8,000 strong,” in contrast to the 1,000 to 2,000 normally seen at similar block parties.

As the officers in standard uniform attempted to disperse the crowd some were hit with rocks and beer bottles. They pulled out and called for backup, following the procedure for civil disturbance. Officers from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Department, the JMU Police Department, the Staunton Police Department, the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department, the ABC and the Virginia State Police supplemented the HPD, bringing the total to about 200.

The officers took positions on the perimeter in riot gear and declared the block party to be an unlawful assembly, which Boshart said is only done in cases of threat to persons or property. Once an unlawful assembly is declared individuals must leave the premises, and officers ordered those present to disperse using loudspeakers and a text message blast through JMU.

Some members of the crowd dispersed as officers showed an increased presence, but when the full crowd failed to disperse officers advanced, firing tear gas and pepper spray. Riot batons, beanbags and rubber bullets were not used, though Boshart said “foam batons,” a type of round fired from the same launcher as tear gas and bounced off the ground toward a target, were employed in one or two cases.

Boshart stood by the use of force in this case, saying that the behavior of the crowd dictated the police’s response. He also emphasized that chemical munitions – that is, tear gas and pepper spray – are the safest way to disperse a crowd.

As the crowd moved towards Sully Drive and dispersed, Boshart said three or four dumpsters were set on fire.

The full crowd dispersed after several hours and police maintained a strong presence throughout the night, including two State Police helicopters.

Boshart said that about 12 officers received a variety of minor injuries, including one whose shoulder was hurt when a thrown rock broke a riot shield. His understanding is that about 30 party-goers had been treated at the hospital, though the exact number and whether their injuries occurred before, during or after the dispersal was unclear. Boshart denied accounts that a police dog was injured.

Pictures from the event posted to Twitter (search for “JMU Springfest” “JMU police” or “JMU tear gas,” be aware of potentially offensive content) show large crowds and police in riot gear, and later posts reflect the confrontation as do videos posted to YouTube. Be aware that search engines have returned some sites that install malicious software for related searches.

Boshart expressed disappointment that the situation escalated.

“The results come in at the end of the day and nobody wins,” he said. “Our concern is for the community as a whole.”

He also acknowledged that people would likely criticize the police response and said that it was an important discussion to have, but he defended the police action.

“Our purpose is to restore order [in cases of civil unrest],” he said. “The people creating [these situations] are not going to like how we do it.”

Boshart said that about 30 people had been arrested, saying that the police did not have the resources to make large numbers of arrests and disperse the crowd.

The Breeze reported Thursday that police were expecting the block party, though it was originally scheduled to be held in the Fox Hills area on Devon Lane.

The HPD is still currently investigating the incident. Mayor Kai Degner has asked for a report to be made at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Hburgnews has posted an email JMU President Linwood Rose sent JMU students Sunday afternoon comments sent by Degner in an email Sunday morning.

This came as JMU hosted undecided high school seniors for its “Choices” open house and promotional events this weekend in an area that is home to many JMU students.

The last time a similar incident occurred in Harrisonburg was in the Forest Hills housing area during a block party in August of 2000 that involved a crowd of roughly 2,000 people. Boshart said that after-action reports and discussion led to equipment and procedure improvements that were applied to this situation.

A CNN iReport has been filed and The Breeze, WHSV and the Daily News-Record have reported on the story as well.

JMU spokesman Don Egle was not immediately available for comment.

Representatives from Rockingham Memorial Hospital declined to comment.

Picture taken from YouTube video posted by kurtzliveshere.

[UPDATE: Re-written after Lt. Boshart commented on sequence of events and police response.]
[UPDATE: Link to Rose's and Degner's comments and CNN iReport.]
[UPDATE: Rubber bullets not employed according to Boshart and links to earlier article from The Breeze.]
[UPDATE: Link to The Breeze's Monday article and caution about malicious software in search engine results.]
[UPDATE: New information and clarifications from press conference on 4/12.]

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