With Halloween mere weeks away, students are gearing up for another big celebration of one of the great Chapel Hill traditions. But this year, downtown Franklin Street will look different from years past if changes made by town officials and police take hold.
The Chapel Hill Police Department has been urging the Town Council to take measures to decrease the size of the crowd and the presence of alcohol on Franklin Street and the surrounding area, and on Wednesday the council reached an agreement with bar owners and store owners: Alcohol sales will be cut off at 1 a.m., an hour early, in stores in the vicinity of Franklin Street; and Franklin Street bars will stop admitting new patrons at 1, although they can continue to serve alcohol until 2. The bars agreed to enforce a $5 cover charge for events open to the public in establishments that sell alcoholic beverages.
That represents a watering down of a proposal by the police to declare a state of emergency and prohibit alcohol sales after 8 p.m.
“I think we got their attention,” Police Chief Brian Curran told The News & Observer.
Last year’s crowd was estimated at 80,000 people and cost the town $221,000. But the concern is not just about the money. Police cite an increasing danger to public safety. While Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy has stated that the event is to be local, the crowd size has grown substantially every year. A police report given to the Town Council on Sept. 22 suggested an aggressive public information campaign to keep out-of-towners away from the area on Halloween.
The town also has taken steps to limit the number of visitors to the event. Shuttle buses will not run to the event, and police will limit East Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to single traffic lanes heading into the downtown area. Police also plan to block Raleigh Road and South Columbia Street. Duke University announced Wednesday that it will not charter a bus to Chapel Hill for this year’s celebration, as it has in years past.
Police also plan to hire parking monitors to reduce the amount of illegal parking.
Town officials estimate that about 65 percent of those arrested on Halloween over the past seven years came into the area from outside of Chapel Hill. Although the numbers of violent crimes and arrests were down last year, a new concern has arisen.
“We have observed over the past several years the addition of criminal street gang members mingling throughout the crowd,” Curran wrote in a memo with Parks and Recreation Director Butch Kisiah.
Student Body President J.J. Raynor says she also has noticed several threats to the safety of students.
“Halloween is a fun tradition that students look forward to every year,” Raynor wrote in an e-mail. “However, it is really obvious that past a certain time it is predominantly not Chapel Hill students on Franklin Street. After 1 a.m., the area begins to feel a lot less safe. Also, the size has grown every year making it harder and harder just to get around during the event. The size also makes it a lot more difficult for the police to protect everyone.”
But some students don’t see safety as a problem. Many, such as junior Lindsey White, take their own precautionary measures.
“I’ve never been in anything other than a group – so that’s what keeps me safe. But I see police everywhere,” she said. “Granted, I get anxious around 12:30, when everyone starts coming and you can’t move.”
White said she also feels confident in the Chapel Hill police – she has seen the officers in action on Halloween. “One year, this guy ran away from a policeman, and within five feet, five policemen had him tackled on the floor,” she said.
White said she believes the tradition of a Franklin Street Halloween should outweigh safety concerns. The publicity the University gets from the event is important, she said, and many students see, as she does, the benefit of a large Halloween celebration.
Andrea Bohling, a sophomore, said she thinks the police officers do a good job of being present and enforcing current rules but also said she has felt unsafe on the west end of Franklin Street during Halloween festivities. Nonetheless, she said she disagrees with the town’s current considerations.
“I find it unnecessary,” she said. “For one thing, I know they were saying people were coming even from California to be here. If it does bring people from out of town, that’s helping the economy. They’ve got to stay somewhere and maybe fly in. If they’re that serious, that they’re coming from far away to get here, they may find a way anyway.”
Bohling suggested that many people would come in a day early or walk from farther away.
The town spent weeks before Wednesday’s announcement discussing several ideas for cutting the number of people coming in from outside the area and limiting alcohol.
Raynor said she was glad for these considerations.
“The town has been very proactive in reaching out to Student Government to talk about ways to make the event safer while still preserving the fun that is Halloween,” Raynor wrote. “If it comes down to a choice between having a fun, safe Halloween just for Chapel Hill students and having an open Halloween where someone gets hurt, the choice is clear. We have been very clear with the town that any changes in transportation the night of the event will need to be communicated in advance to students so that everyone can get home safe. We also asked that instead of interrupting the regular buses, which students use, that they focus only on the park-and-rides, which students do not use as frequently after a certain hour.”
Raynor and others in UNC’s Student Government are exploring their own ideas for safety improvements. Citing students’ intoxication as one of her administration’s greatest concerns regarding safety, Raynor said Student Government is working with the student affairs office to provide more food options for students before they reach Franklin Street. They also are looking into a system of peer escorts to ensure that students find their ways home at the end of the night.
The town’s decisions are being watched not only by students and Chapel Hill residents, but also by neighboring N.C. State University. Student groups there are considering expansion of their Halloween celebration as a charity fundraiser in Raleigh. However, NCSU students say they want to prevent a Halloween event similar to Chapel Hill’s.