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Tackling private parking-lot misbehavior outside Bills games

The short-term debate has been resolved. The Town of Orchard Park has given up on the idea of requiring owners of private parking lots outside New Era Field to apply for permits that would allow police on their properties for Buffalo Bills home games.

But the larger concern remains – how to curb drunkenness, fights, thefts and social-media-driven rowdyism in those lots.

The main culprit is obvious.

“I would say more than 90 percent of the individuals we deal with, that we make arrests on, are impaired by alcohol or drugs or both,” Orchard Park Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec said.

The fewer than 80 lots within one mile of New Era Field park anywhere from under a dozen vehicles each to more than 600, authorities estimate.

“You’re probably looking in the 10,000-to-12,000 vehicle range, depending on the game,” Pacholec estimated. “That’s a lot of cars.”

With an average of more than three people per vehicle, the chief believes more than half the stadium’s fans are parking in those satellite lots.

The vast majority of those lots pose few problems for police, as Pacholec cited difficulties at maybe four or five locations, which he would not identify.

“It runs the gamut from fights to larcenies,” he said. “We do tend to get a lot of larcenies [from cars] in one or two lots.”

And then there are the rowdy incidents that have caught the public’s attention, most of them alcohol-fueled and preserved on cellphone videos, to share with the world. Those include the “DizzyBat” beer-swigging fan who crashed head-first into a parked bus last season; a fan “surfing” atop a zigzagging pickup truck this preseason; and last year’s viral video that captured a man setting himself on fire by jumping onto a burning table.

Some have dubbed it the Drunk Olympics.

Authorities don’t find it so funny, realizing that any of those acts could have led to serious injury or death, especially as fans try to one-up each other with reckless stunts. Law-enforcement officials also acknowledge how tough it is to stop such antics, some of which don’t break any laws.

“Given the nature of social media, with instant postings, I’m afraid we’re never going to get rid of it,” Pacholec said. “We’re just trying to reduce it.”

The problem

The Town of Orchard Park has 29,613 residents, according to 2015 census estimates.

But on Buffalo Bills game days, that number more than triples, swollen by about 70,000 fans in the stands, a few thousand law-enforcement officials and stadium workers, and some 5,000 fans who stay in the parking lots to tailgate. So a town built for 30,000 grows to a city of more than 100,000, most of it concentrated in a small area.

That large gathering, unfortunately, could be an inviting target for terrorists, such as the attacks outside a Paris soccer stadium last November.

“We have the largest sports venue in the state,” Pacholec said. “So we have an obligation that people feel safe and protected at the venue.”

This past summer, Orchard Park police and town officials talked about requiring private-lot owners to allow police onto their properties.

In a letter to stadium neighbors this summer, the Bills and Orchard Park police cited inappropriate behavior, lewd acts, destruction of property and reckless acts such as the fan who set himself on fire.

Many owners cried foul about police officers in their lots, claiming that rowdy behavior occurs in only a few lots, that customers don’t want police there, that the police intrusion would be unconstitutional and that it would be a poor use of police resources on game day.

 

And town Councilman Michael J. Sherry, a retired assistant police chief, raised concerns about any policy threatening people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

“People should be free to misbehave if that’s what they want to do, as long as it’s not criminal and as long as it doesn’t harm other people or their property,” Sherry said.

After a meeting among the Bills, town officials and lot owners, the town researched the legal issue and determined no new policy is needed.

“The parking is really not an issue any longer,” Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick J. Keem said in a voice-mail message. “We discovered that when people accept money to allow people to park on their lot, then it become a business property... Therefore, the same rules that apply to businesses apply to these private lots.”

But authorities still are left tackling the age-old problems outside the stadium, many of them clearly driven by drinking.

Stupid, drunken behavior

The Bills and Orchard Park officials are quick to point out that the “city” of 100,000-plus fans is mostly well-behaved, with relatively few exceptions.

“We get 70- to 80,000 people out here,” said Sherry, the town board member. “It’s a charged atmosphere and a celebratory atmosphere. Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the time, that’s what it is. In general, people are extremely well-behaved out here.”

Sherry found a euphemistic way to describe the alcohol problem: “You get individuals who have sometimes done too much celebrating and lose their perspective.”

Authorities estimate there may be a few dozen or so “falling-down drunks” on any game day. That’s about one-twentieth of 1 percent of the crowd.

But no one can deny that excessive drinking feeds most of the problems, especially some of the parking-lot shenanigans.

The DizzyBat, the guy setting himself on fire and similar antics, besides being potentially dangerous, also create a reputation about Bills fans that’s spread across the country. It’s not hard to find national stories claiming that Buffalo has the worst-behaved fans in the league.

Sherry and others think these viral social-media stunts send a false impression about Bills fans.

“There certainly is an element of embarrassment when [these incidents] hit social media,” he said. “There’s a tendency to take an exception and turn it into a rule.”

The alcohol also helps lead to isolated fights.

But there is one crime outside the stadium that appears to have little to do with alcohol. That’s larcenies from vehicles in the parking lots. Some of those vehicles are broken into, but some are unlocked, with valuables left clearly visible.

Police consider these “crimes of opportunity” that can be reduced by fans locking their vehicles and hiding any valuables.

Vigilance by the lot owners also can help reduce these thefts. An unattended lot, or one where strangers roam the parking rows to pick up beer bottles, can be an invitation to break-ins.

Doing it right

Eric Matwijow doesn’t mind people drinking in his Hammer’s Lot, on Abbott Road near the stadium. Heck, he even lets people play drinking games like “pong.”

But he draws the line when it comes to binge drinking, as reflected by a sign in his lot:

A large red “NO” precedes the terms Funnels, Dizzy Bats and Table Slamming, some of the most aggressive of drinking games and drunken pastimes.

“Rapid ingestion of alcohol is just not what tailgating’s all about,” Matwijow said. “Who can get the drunkest? Not on my property. Stay home. People can have fun, but it has to be within reason.”

He’s walking a tricky line, encouraging enthusiastic tailgating, while ensuring it doesn’t get out of hand. That’s why Pacholec called him a parking-lot owner “who goes out of his way to make things right.”

Matwijow, a local roofing contractor, also begins cleaning his lot right after the opening kickoff, to send a message to post-game tailgaters about respecting his property.

But he thinks law enforcement and lot owners need help in controlling unruly behavior.

“It’s up to the fans to police themselves – or respect themselves.”

Working together

New Era Field likely will move downtown or change names again before anyone eliminates alcohol-fueled misbehavior outside Bills games.

But Orchard Park town officials, police and the Bills feel they’re making progress in the battle by working together, as reflected by their meeting with the owners of private parking lots over the summer.

“The Bills have done so much in the last five or six years to make it a more fan- and family-friendly environment,” Pacholec said.

Those improvements include strengthening and publicizing the team’s Fan Code of Conduct, providing more security officers at the stadium and working with law-enforcement’s stronger anti-terrorist presence, with highly visible SWAT Team members and explosive-detecting dogs.

Total game-day arrests, although often fluctuating, are significantly down. As an example, Pacholec noted that police made 15 to 18 arrests at this season’s Thursday night home opener against the New York Jets, compared to about 65 at a 2007 night game against the Dallas Cowboys.

“Without question, there are more safety measures and a larger law-enforcement presence than there were four or five years ago,” the chief said. "But we live in a different world than four or five years ago, where individuals or groups of people are seeking to harm other people, whether it’s because of ideology or people who have mental illness.”

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