CHAMPAIGN — Police say they have public safety on the top of their minds as they prepare for this Friday's inevitable Unofficial St. Patrick's Day celebration.
And on Tuesday, they wanted to deliver a clear message to Campustown residents who plan on hosting parties.
"Keep it small, keep it legal and allow only invited guests in," said Champaign police Lt. Brad Yohnka.
Yohnka said police will be focusing efforts on unsafe parties and pedestrian safety this year as University of Illinois students and their guests plan to launch their annual, daylong drinking binge. "Unofficial" is in its 17th year now after a bar owner in 1996 launched what was then a promotion to recuperate business that would be lost on the actual St. Patrick's Day. The official March 17 holiday usually falls on a day when students are away from campus for spring break.
The idea caught on.
Now a student-organized event, Unofficial has a history of causing problems for police and UI officials in bars and even in classes, but Yohnka said authorities have managed to squelch those problems for the most part. University officials have worked to keep problems out of campus buildings, Yohnka said, and the Champaign mayor's emergency orders regulating bars has helped to keep order — particularly one order that aims to keep out patrons under age 21.
Now the problems have moved into apartments and houses, he said.
"This used to be a three-area, three-headed monster for us," Yohnka said.
Police are warning party hosts that, this year, they could be facing misdemeanor state charges if they provide alcohol to minors. In past years, police have issued city tickets, which carry fines instead of potential jail time.
Police, the fire department and parking enforcement officers will be on the lookout for overcrowded balconies, too. Undercover officers and undercover minors will be around campus trying to gain entry into unsafe parties.
Yohnka said that, last year, undercover officers were only invited in to about 25 percent of the parties where they showed up. That's a good sign, he said.
"If they don't get in to any, that would be even better," he said.
Yohnka said that police "don't tell people that they can't party," as long as it's legal. He compared it with Super Bowl Sunday, a day when many students hold parties, but the Champaign police do not need extra officers on duty. Super Bowl parties are more reasonable, he said.
For Unofficial, on the other hand, more than 100 officers from several departments will be on the streets.
Pedestrian safety will also be a major concern.
"One of the frightening things we observed (last year) was a lot of near-misses," Yohnka said.
One UI student who was believed to have been participating in Unofficial activities last year was killed late in the day when he was reportedly crossing University Avenue in Urbana against the light. Brad Bunte, who was 21, was intoxicated at the time of the accident, and the driver of the first of two cars to hit him reported he never saw Mr. Bunte until after he heard a bang.
Police plan to post signs on campus to remind drivers to slow down and pay attention to pedestrians. Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connelly has told the Urbana City Council that he plans to lower the speed limit on a segment of Green Street in Urbana from 30 mph to 25 mph for the day.