For today’s COVID-19 Report, PERF spoke with officials from state and local law enforcement agencies near college campuses where students recently held large gatherings in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. They discussed some of the issues they’re facing and how they’re responding to those challenges.

Key Takeaways

-- Students on some campuses are challenging authority, resulting in considerable conflict and violence.

-- Universities and their police departments  need to be prepared for warmer weather that will result in more gatherings and public health issues with COVID.

-- Collaboration between municipal and campus police departments is key to effectively managing the off-campus behavior of students.

-- The Durham Police Department assigned a dedicated liaison officer to focus on off-campus houses that tend to cause the most problems for neighbors.

-- Municipal police agencies are prepared to make arrests when students become violent or damage property. But they have found that working with the university to pursue administrative sanctions can be more effective in changing student behavior.


Boulder, CO Chief Maris Herold

Last Saturday (March 6) was our first really nice day here – about 70 degrees. The students have been under pretty strict restrictions because we had a severe COVID outbreak in the Hill, which is an area right off campus. On Saturday we had issues with smaller parties starting in the late afternoon and, through social media, they got bigger and bigger until they reached about 800 students.

We tried to send officers into the crowd to find influencers to try to start dispersing the larger crowd. The students indicated they were protesting not having spring break, which the university cancelled.

Then we sent a specialized unit that really knows the Greek fraternities and a lot of the residents in the Hill. That didn’t work, and eventually the crowd turned violent and started flipping cars. There was a lot of property damage.

Source: @K1DDN Twitter

We had to escalate and call in our SWAT team and do a regional call-out. We used limited force. We used a couple canisters of tear gas, coupled with raid notifications to students from the university. And with an overwhelming number of SWAT and police officers, we were finally able to disperse the crowd.

We did a really good job with focusing our force options, and escalated only when the crowd escalated, with limited force. We did have three SWAT officers who were targeted with rocks. The officers had minimal injuries and didn’t need medical attention.

It happened very quickly, and we had no pre-intelligence that this was going to happen. Usually we have big turnouts on St. Patrick’s Day, but this was a few days before that.

This was unusual. We haven’t had this type of disturbance for about 14 years. I’m hearing two things about this. One is that the students were protesting the CU chancellor deciding not to have spring break. The second is that they were sick of wearing masks. Almost none of the students were wearing masks, and there was no regard for public safety. Police officers did their best to maintain their own COVID masking, but there was total disregard and very selfish behavior on the part of the students.

I think our officers deserve credit, because there were no serious injuries all around.

Now we have a task force to identify the students who were breaking laws. We’ve received over 800 video clips, and we have our body-worn cameras. We’ve started making arrests. We have a few weeks of work ahead of us, and we’re receiving a lot of good support from the Boulder County District Attorney.

The university is working in tandem with us, and they recognize the seriousness of this incident. There are a lot of single-family residences intertwined with the student housing, and the community is really upset by this.

The university has come out strong. They’ve indicated that people involved in property damage and violence towards the police and fire personnel will be expelled. They’ll support criminal charges. And they’ve given us investigative support from their police department. The community has high expectations that these students will be held accountable and, moving forward, there are sanctions in place for this type of behavior.


Durham, NC Chief CJ Davis

When I first got here in 2016, Duke was basically a thorn in our side with off-campus parties. For decades there have been houses around the campus that are known as “legacy” party houses. They’ve been a quality-of-life issue for people living in the community for a very long time. I was getting so many emails from community members about the noise, bottles of liquor and drug paraphernalia on the streets and in people’s yards, and people urinating in yards. I realized something needed to be done.

I met with community members in an area that has several fraternity houses, and we decided we were going to assign an officer to be the college frat house liaison. The officer is not taking an enforcement or antagonistic approach. They’re having conversations about how we find a happy medium. We try to appeal to our college students’ empathetic side by helping them see how they’ve impacted the quality of life of some of their neighbors, particularly elderly folks. The neighbors had gotten so used to the parties over decades that they felt there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

But this liaison went from door to door and set up meetings with the individuals leasing the houses. He ended up taking some of the community members with him to talk about the effect the parties were having on them and their elderly relatives. Since that started a couple years ago, that has really changed the dynamic with party houses in the Duke area.

The liaison officer we assigned has done exceptionally well with community engagement and being really authentic. He’s young and could pass for a Duke student, and he has been very effective at having conversations with the students. He’s not seen as a Durham police officer coming to threaten them. He’s talking to them about college life and his experiences. I hope I can keep that liaison officer for a while, because he has really abated some of the problems we previously had.

We have to go through the same cycle when new students arrive. And we have to get the university involved so that there are sanctions and accountability. Before, the Durham Police Department just responded to the neighborhood and had to deal with the person renting the house. Now we have a process for running a student’s name through the university database, and there can be sanctions. If a person is cited a certain number of times, it threatens their ability to take part in some activities.  

Over the last few weeks, the weather has changed and I guess everyone has gotten tired of being inside. There have been gatherings that have potentially been super-spreader events, because more than 100 students may have become infected due to their contact with individuals who were at these parties.

Our approach has been to try very hard to not make arrests, and that has been successful for us. But we don’t know what this spring is going to be like.

The university police technically are not responsible for events that happen in neighborhoods, but they understand the importance of having conversations with students who are violating the law.


Connecticut State Police Sergeant Mathieu Asselin

In Connecticut, towns can contract with the State Police to be their primary law enforcement entity through the Resident State Trooper Program. UConn’s Storrs campus is part of the town of Mansfield, and they contract with the State Police to be their primary law enforcement agency. The Mansfield Resident Trooper’s Office works hand-in-hand with the UConn campus police and the dean of students.

In our situation, there was a large party, and the students were in violation of the governor’s mandates on masks and social gatherings. It was not violent at all; they were respectful toward the troopers. Citations were issued to the party hosts, and there was no other enforcement action taken. There was no property damage or civil unrest. It was just a large off-campus gathering.

We have a pretty good handle on COVID-19 in the state of Connecticut, and we’re trying to keep it in check. That was one of the reasons the Mansfield Resident Trooper’s Office was out in force making sure there were no parties like this going on.

We have patrols throughout Mansfield to make sure students are obeying the governor’s mask mandate. Students hosting parties could face administrative sanctions from the university.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.