CHAMPIONSHIP BOUT: Harvard Can Learn From ALCS Tragedy

After one of the most thrilling and inspiring comebacks in sports history climaxed a week ago today with the Red Sox defeating the Yankees 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, Boston erupted in celebration. Jubilation quickly turned to tragedy, however, as 21-year-old Emerson College junior Victoria Snelgrove was killed after Boston police fired a plastic projectile of pepper spray into the crowd, striking her in the eye. By all accounts, Snelgrove was an innocent bystander who was simply rejoicing over the victory of her beloved Red Sox.

Like Snelgrove, I’m a huge Red Sox fan, but because I was lucky enough to get tickets to Games 6 and 7 of the ALCS in New York, I was away from Boston for most of last week and I missed the celebrations throughout my hometown last Wednesday night.

But I do know one thing. The attitude of the Boston Police Department towards drinking and keeping young people and the city at large safe right now is simply incorrect. Now, let me preface this opinion by saying that this summer I worked for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office as an intern, and I have nothing but respect for the outstanding jobs that the Boston police officers I met this summer do on a daily basis.

But seeing the contrast between how things happened during games 6 and 7 in New York and how they were reported to have happened here on Wednesday—along with what I witnessed after attending the first game of the World Series last Saturday—makes me realize how much more in tune the NYPD is with crowd control.

As a Sox fan who was openly wearing his hat and Curt Schilling shirt in the heart of the Bronx, you’d expect that I would be terrified of harassment from the Yankee fans. But the NYPD was literally everywhere—paddy wagons lined the streets and officers strolled through the crowd both before and after the games. In the stadium, there were at least two police officers in every section. In addition, undercover police officers patrolled the scene outside of the stadium, and I personally saw one accost an out-of-control fan.

In contrast, when I returned to Boston and attended the World Series on Saturday, it was a much different scene both inside and outside of Fenway Park. Instead of a constant police presence throughout the stadium, the police huddled in clusters at the entrances to the stands, seemingly waiting for a problem to erupt so they could react to it. Outside on Lansdowne Street after the conclusion of the Red Sox’s thrilling 11-9 victory over the Cardinals, the police that I saw were decked out in full riot gear with masks, shields and batons in full view. My friend needed to use the ATM after the game, which was located behind a full line of police officers in riot gear in Kenmore Square. He asked if the ATM was available, to which he got a muffled, “get the hell out of here, kid.”

I realize that all of the evidence I have presented here is anecdotal. But at a certain point, the attitude of the police officers around the stadium after a sporting event will have an effect on the attitude of the revelers. At Yankee Stadium, the police officers that I encountered calmly acted as if they were in total control of the situation. With cops and undercover officers throughout the stadium, the NYPD took a proactive response to the possibility of drunken escapades.

In a report in the Boston Globe on Oct. 23, two officers stated that the weapons which were used to kill Victoria Snelgrove had only been purchased for the Democratic National Convention this summer and that they had never been used outside of training. In addition, one anonymous officer stated that only a “handful” of the officers in the riot control unit had even been trained to use the weapons.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of the horrible tragedy, Boston mayor Thomas Menino seemed to blame the fans rather than the poor use of the projectile weapons when he threatened to close liquor sales in all bars around Fenway Park during the World Series. To their credit, the mayor and the Boston Police administration later backed off of those threats and also promised a full investigation into any wrongdoing surrounding Snelgrove’s death.

Still, Menino’s proclamation probably struck a chord with many Harvard students who have been reading reports with trepidation about the planning for this year’s Harvard-Yale game. For those who haven’t been keeping up, Boston police have decided to take a much harder stance on underage drinking at the tailgates this year than in years past. The Crimson reported earlier this month that Boston Police Captain William Evans wants to drastically curb public underage drinking at tailgates both at Boston College and Harvard.

This seems to me analogous to the situation surrounding Victoria Snelgrove’s horrible death. Instead of trying to be proactive and control the crowd by employing undercover officers and a universal police presence, the Boston Police sat back in riot gear and waited for things to get out of control before using a dangerous projectile gun by officers that may have been untrained to use one. In response, Menino blamed alcohol and tried to take the paternalistic response of cutting off drinking altogether.

For Harvard-Yale, instead of having college administrators and Harvard police officers throughout the crowd at this year’s tailgate—as seemed to be the case last year at Yale—Boston police have proposed not allowing kegs at all. They seem to be trying to abscond themselves of all liability in the case that a drinking-related tragedy does occur.

But in my opinion they are making students less safe by indirectly encouraging freshmen and other underage students to binge drink on hard alcohol alone in their rooms before coming to the tailgates rather than drinking beer more responsibly and in the view of HUPD officers, adults and other students, who would be able to spot individuals who could be in trouble.

Students are going to drink for Harvard-Yale. It’s a foregone conclusion. Rather than reacting to past drinking tragedies by trying to outlaw drinking totally for all underage students, the police and the University should be proactive and focus more on the prevention of a possible tragedy through education and outreach about binge drinking.

Because that’s what this is all about, isn’t it—preventing a tragedy beforehand, not reacting badly to it afterwards. If Victoria Snelgrove can’t teach us that, who can?

—Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at boutwel@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.