Champaign police sergeant who led liquor effort retiring
CHAMPAIGN — To those who have criticized him for cracking down on underage drinking for 16 of his 26 years with the Champaign police, Scott Friedlein has two words: Joseph Irey.
Mr. Irey was a 19-year-old University of Illinois student who plunged to his death in 1989 after boasting while drunk that he could go down a fire escape ladder head-first.
"I was there within seconds of his fall," said Friedlein, who had been a Champaign police officer four years at the time. "I really walked away with a lot of frustrations because here was a young man who really didn't need to die."
Police learned Mr. Irey had been at eight bars and a private party in the final hours of his life.
"It gave me the motivation to look at what our young people were doing and to come up with ways to help them survive their college experience," said Friedlein, who has repeated Mr. Irey's tragic story countless times.
He'll no longer be telling it as a Champaign police officer.
The sergeant whose duties have been 50 percent alcohol enforcement, 25 percent special events planning, and 25 percent checking the backgrounds of potential police department hires is retiring Jan. 3.
The 51-year-old Tolono man talked about leaving off and on for a couple of years, but city officials made the decision for him earlier this year by eliminating his position in a budget cut. His duties will be divided among several departmental employees.
Friedlein doesn't have another job. With a son in high school and a daughter in college, he wants to keep working, probably teaching in the alcohol enforcement arena. His immediate plans include spending time with his father, who has pancreatic cancer.
In 1995, after a decade in patrol, Friedlein was put at the helm of the department's newly created "Alcohol Enforcement Program." Not long after, a prominent campus bar owner dubbed him the "Liquor Nazi," a title he's able to laugh about.
"My goal was never to be that but to create a fair and safe environment, treating bar owners with respect, understanding what we want as a community is good compliant businesses," he said.
"I feel like I've had a good working relationship with many of the bars. There will always be differences of opinions. When I look at the history of our community, this is a problem that hasn't gone away. It goes back to Prohibition. (Former police officer and mayor) Jerry Schweighart had a poster up in his office from the 1950s with underage drinking fines. We will always have to deal with this in light of us being a college community," he said.
In the early years of the campus "street sweeps," there was a marked decrease in the amount of violent crime in the core business district, he said.
"If you let the little things go, bigger things develop," he said of the effort to curb underage drinking.
Another of his contributions was to help develop a training program for bar security people.
Even before a UI graduate student was fatally injured in 1998 by a downtown Champaign bar bouncer — who was later convicted of murder — Friedlein said the department was noticing a trend of bar security employees escalating violence toward patrons.
Joined by fellow officer Pat Kelly, they developed training to help bar employees "look for ways to send the message about safety first. We give them a lot of skills to identify potential problems and deal with the lowest common denominator."
Although he wouldn't brand Unofficial St. Patrick's Day as the bane of his existence for the last 17 or so years, Friedlein said police have employed a number of "different strategies to provide a safer environment" for the springtime day-long drinking fest that attracts college students from far and wide.
One of the things he's learned over the years is how social media, Facebook in particular, makes it "easier to organize bad behavior."
Friedlein has been an active planner for about 25 years in the Fourth of July Freedom Celebration — both the parade and the fireworks. The change of the fireworks display to Parkland College a few years ago has attracted more viewers but also has meant a traffic bottleneck when the show is over.
In on the ground floor of planning for the almost 4-year-old Illinois Marathon, Friedlein said he "absolutely" loves the growth it has enjoyed. His "most frustrating" challenge came in 2002, accommodating the Chicago Bears and their fans at Memorial Stadium while Chicago's Soldier Field was being renovated.
Lt. Roy Acree holds a similar post with the UI police department and knows there's far more to organizing special events than directing traffic and keeping people safe.
"I know how much time is involved. Over the years a lot of things have changed, including making official operations plans," he said.
The federal government, he said, requires forms for each major event that must be filled out in order for a community to qualify for aid in the event of a disaster. (Friedlein estimates the city processes 250 special events permits a year, about 50 of which are deemed "significant.")
Acree said the Freedom Celebration committee starts meeting in January and the police usually join the planning in the early summer.
"One thing about Scott is that he went to all those meetings. I know he has put tons of effort in to a lot of these events and a lot of that he's put in on his own time," Acree said. "He probably knows the marathon better than any of the special events people in the county."
Acree and Champaign Interim Police Chief Holly Nearing agreed the department and the community are losing a lot with Friedlein's departure.
"There will be other sergeants and command officers picking up his duties as they get spread to different divisions, but we will not have the expertise he developed over the years. We'll be losing some of that ... 'answer off the top of your head,'" Nearing said. "It's not a service cut, but it is a cut in the level of expertise. His duties have been not eliminated."
Although a lower-profile part of his job, Friedlein said he's enjoyed checking the backgrounds of potential department employees and estimated he's been involved in some way with the hiring of about 80 percent of the current department.
Acree called his colleague a "very pleasant person to work with."
"I've never seen him lose his temper or get upset, even though things may not be working out the way they should be," he said.
Friedlein credits his parents for helping him develop into a community servant and he tries to live by these words from Maya Angelou: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
"That's something I saw in Reader's Digest and it stuck to me," he said.