CHAMPAIGN – Police say they are ready to handle Friday's "Unofficial St. Patrick's Day" celebration on the University of Illinois campus, as it appears thousands of students are once again ready to participate in the infamous event.
Unofficial St. Pat's traditions are simple enough: Students spend the day in green, in bars and intoxicated, many waking up at dawn to tap the keg for early apartment parties that could last through the day.
On Wednesday, more than 23,000 had indicated on Facebook that they would "attend" the event, more than last year's 17,000. Police say it's hard to gauge what the actual attendance will be, but Champaign Sgt. Scott Friedlein says law enforcement agencies are preparing as they have for past events.
Unofficial on the UI campus originated in 1996 as a way for bar owner Scott Cochrane to recover the income he would not receive on the actual St. Patrick's Day, which typically falls on UI students' spring break.
Since then, "it grew multiple legs, multiple arms, a couple heads and became a real monster for us," Friedlein said.
Police from several different agencies will increase their presence on campus, one of their perennial strategies in limiting the effects of a day's worth of binge drinking. Officers from local law enforcement agencies and the state police will be running special details throughout the day.
"We're going to be aggressive, there is no doubt," Friedlein said.
Illinois State Police Sgt. Bill Emery said his officers will have a "zero tolerance" policy for underage drinking on Friday.
UI police Lt. Skip Frost said it seems like there have been fewer disruptions to Friday classes during the past several years. UI police will have five to eight officers stationed near the Quad, he said.
In the past, students have tried to bring alcohol into classes and on some occasions have been removed for their behavior. Frost said the Assembly Hall security staff will be monitoring the larger lecture halls and will not allow students to bring in liquids.
"I think, this year, the plan represents all the things we've learned in the past," Frost said.
The officers aren't working for free: Last year, Champaign police clocked 252 hours of overtime, costing more than $10,000.
A state grant should help offset some of those costs this year, said Melissa Kearns of Community Elements, the lead agency on the grant that is being spread across several government agencies.
The grant has also helped fund an advertising campaign, Kearns said. Community Elements staff visited Campustown businesses this week to ask managers to post fliers instructing potential partiers on how they can stay out of trouble.
Police have also created a Facebook page, detailing ordinances and laws that may come into play on Friday, to counter the student-created page.
Mayor Jerry Schweighart, who also acts as the city's liquor commissioner, has issued a number of "emergency orders" designed to limit participants' abilities to drink. Among them: bars may not open before 11 a.m. and may not serve pitchers of beer or undiluted shots of hard liquor. Only patrons 21 years or older will be allowed entry.
Package liquor stores must require a customer sign an "adult responsibility form" before purchasing 168 or more 12-ounce containers of beer or malt beverage; 24 or more 1-liter bottles of distilled spirits; or one keg.
The mayor's office has also suspended its issuance of keg permits, making it illegal to possess more than one keg of beer per residence.
Champaign Lt. Brad Yohnka said last year's Unofficial St. Pat's event drew fewer notices to appear in court – 269, down from 351 in 2009.
Calls for police service were also down 55 percent, which allowed police to initiate 43 percent more contacts themselves. Yohnka said medical calls and injuries were fewer than in 2009, too.
Of course, Unofficial St. Patrick's Day in 2009 was 72 degrees and sunny. Last year, temperatures were in the mid-40s.
And rain is in the forecast for this Friday.