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Why Police Didn’t Break Up the Osama Celebration

On Sunday, May 1st, Penn State students gathered in droves at Beaver Canyon to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden and the American foreign policy victory it represented. Given the impromptu nature of the celebration, State College Police were forced to act quickly.

The event was  unique in that it was completely spontaneous and most of those in attendance were driven by patriotic, jubilant intentions. Unlike more predictable Penn State riots in the past that followed significant football victories, the Osama celebration came out of nowhere.

But how should a police force handle a situation like this? If police act to stifle the rally, they can be seen as condemning a patriotic display. If they avoid any enforcement and a student suffers a serious injury or property is damaged, then the responsibility falls on them. Fortunately, neither happened.

On Sunday night, the State College Police Department, headed by Chief Tom King, maintained a significant (roughly 30 officers) yet primarily observational presence outside the gathering. When I caught up with King Sunday night, he expressed a sense of optimism given the number and enthusiasm of the celebrating students.

“Our strategy is really not to do too much,” King said. While police took few major actions besides closing off Beaver Avenue, there was a different sense among the crowd than in previous riots. He added, “The crowd is not destructive, and appears to be in a celebratory mood.” Perhaps this was a combination of the reason for the event, the fact that it was the Sunday before finals week, and that the majority of people were sober. Looking back on Sunday night’s celebrations, King’s assessment ended up being very accurate, with the exception of a few small fires.

Sunday’s rally was about far more than just an excuse to take a study break;  it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for police, students, and the entire community to unite in celebrating a world-changing event. It may have been the only time I will ever see police stand by and watch fireworks set off in the middle of Beaver Avenue. Police are often despised (fairly or unfairly) in this community for their role in stopping fun and partying. Their decision to stand back and share the moment with Penn Staters, however, makes their role in Sunday’s demonstration all the more reasonable and shows that they are able to differentiate between destructive and innocuous celebration.
State College Police gave students considerable latitude with their celebration Sunday night by choosing to act only when potentially dangerous behavior occurred. The fact that there was little police action and minimal damage reflects well on all those involved.

About the Author

Dave Cole

Dave graduated from Penn State in 2013. He was the Managing Editor of this website. Dave remains a proud Onward State alumnus to this day.

Twitter --> @davecolephoto

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