Scores of flashing police lights created a stark contrast to the frivolity of banners hanging from Greek Row houses paying homage to the legacy of John Belushi and proudly proclaiming "We Are Family."
The atmosphere was anything but happy-go-lucky as nearly 100 officers from at least five police agencies raced to the University of Utah Thursday night on the call of a riot in progress.There were no serious injuries, but several students were sprayed in the face with Mace or a similar chemical and one officer was hit in the back of the head with a beer bottle.
About 500 students were participating in Greek Week parties in many of the fraternity and sorority houses on Wolcott Avenue (1455 East) and 100 South.
Tension escalated just after 9 p.m. at the Kappa Sigma house when University of Utah police officers responded to a raucous party that they said was in violation of a city ordinance that stipulates the legal number of people when alcohol is present.
"There was obviously more than 60 people there, so we started to tell them they needed to disperse," U. Police Sgt. Kent Curtis said. "It wasn't out of control, but we were getting little cooperation from them to leave, and when officers saw the number of people involved, they called for backup."
Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where students became verbal and then began throwing things, Curtis said. One U. officer was hit in the back of the head with a beer bottle. Debris also hit police cars.
"It then became something definitely out of control and we requested Salt Lake (police) to back us up," he said.
As dispatchers called for every available unit to respond, Salt Lake County deputy sheriffs, the Utah Highway Patrol and Midvale police assisted. A sheriff's helicopter hovered overhead and canine units arrived.
Many officers were wearing riot gear as police cars crammed virtually every space on Wolcott Avenue and on 100 South to about 1400 East.
"All I know is we were having a great time, enjoying the party, when all these cops showed up," said Sigma Chi member Ben Slaughter, a senior. "There wasn't any hostility and then they start Macing everybody. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."
Sandra Swensen from Alpha Chi Omega said officers "just kept rolling in and rolling in. They just kept after us. I mean we just raised $2,000 for some kids and we get this."
Michael McComb of Sigma Phi Epsilon and vice president of the Interfraternity Council said he got sprayed with Mace in the melee and saw police "throwing people to the ground."
"They started to form this line over at the Phi Delta Theta house to get everybody out when they started throwing them around," McComb said. "And the girls were getting thrown down as well."
But Curtis said officer safety was at issue and police were taking preventative measures. "We had to break it up," he said.
When reporters asked why several people felt officers were using excessive force, Curtis said, "As far as we know, we did not."
Not so, according to many students, some of whom were yelling obscenities at officers from windows and balconies.
"I got sprayed with Mace for 10 straight seconds," said one student who asked not to be named. "We tried to cooperate, but we were so bewildered. After I got sprayed, two of my brothers grabbed me, and the officers just kept hitting me in the face with the Mace."
Salt Lake police booked one unidentified male student into jail for investigation of inciting a riot.
University police made no arrests, although the president of Kappa Sigma, Glen Stalzer, was cited for disorderly conduct and interfering with the duties of a police officer.
The incident has also triggered an internal student behavior investigation by campus administrators, according to U. Greek coordinator Cherry Ridges.
Depending upon the outcome of that investigation, the U. could do nothing, place the involved fraternity chapters on warning or probation and refer specific students to a behavior committee for possible sanctions.
While the fraternity houses are privately owned and not directly under U. control, the university has a voice in chapter policies and practices.
Ridges said the incident will be considered as the U. continues its ongoing assessment of policies governing fraternity row, especially regarding the "legal and appropriate uses of alcohol."
Last year, Utah State University adopted a strict code of conduct for its fraternity row, including alcohol-free chapters.
The U.'s dean of students, police officers and involved students planned to meet at noon Friday to discuss ways to avoid further Greek Week problems, said U. Police Chief Wayne Shepherd.