Curfew must be in game plan to quell rioting
James Alan Fox

February 5, 2004

It will not be long before Coach Bill Belichick begins strategizing for how to make good on Bob Kraft's promise before a delirious throng of fans gathered on City Hall Plaza to bring home a third championship trophy to New England. It is up to the rest of us to develop a plan for how to be better prepared if and when that happens.

The tragic events that started to unfold just as Adam Vinatieri's game-winning kick sailed over the crossbar - a swath of destruction, injury and one fatality caused by exuberant and inebriated fans near Northeastern and Boston University - hardly came as a surprise. Similar disorderly behavior occurred during the Red Sox playoffs, prompting college officials this time to warn students about suspension, expulsion and criminal prosecution should there be a repeat performance. The response would be appreciably more substantial than the NFL's 15-yard penalty for "excessive celebration."

The potential for postgame rioting, win or lose, reflects a nationwide trend across college campuses. In November 2002, Ohio State students rioted after the Buckeyes beat rival Michigan. Students at the University of Minnesota flipped cars and torched bonfires after their hockey team won the NCAA title last spring. And at the University of Maryland, March Madness literally turned to March mayhem after the Terps were eliminated by Duke from the 2001 Final Four.

In each instance, suspension, expulsion and arrest were the too-little, too-late responses to foreseeable acts of violence and vandalism. What has become abundantly clear is that the threat of sanction does not deter such activity, and not surprisingly so.

Most of the young and over-zealous celebrants do not go out deliberately to riot. Fueled by mob spirit as much as by alcoholic spirits, students engage in dumpster-flipping and bottle-throwing without much thought of getting into trouble with the dean or the cops. Crowd forces operate on most people regardless of age, but especially for those who because of their youth tend to be impulsive and imprudent.

Rather than tackling the nearly impossible task of deterring this kind of behavior, we need to find ways to detour it. For police, this means deploying more than just the few dozen officers on duty Sunday night to monitor crowds spilling onto the streets after the Super Bowl. A strong show of force, like the 1,000 officers who guarded Tuesday's parade to City Hall, would more likely have squelched any postgame rioting.

For the colleges' part, a tough pre-emptive move, assisted by the police, might do more than threats of sanction. The free pizza parties with large-screen TVs, offered up at Northeastern, were surely a step in the right direction. But as an additional move, a postgame curfew (essentially locking students in the dorms and barring traffic from the streets around the universities) would more likely have averted trouble before it developed.

As a rule, blanket and wide-ranging curfews are a poor and constitutionally questionable strategy for preventing crime. However, cities confronted with riots (often related to racial conflict) have effectively implemented curfews as a short-term measure.

Just last month, the Durham (N.H.) Town Council, disturbed by a series of sports-related disturbances, backed a tough measure to ban rioting UNH students from the campus for up to two years. We may hear similar proposals discussed at Boston City Hall. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of prosecution. Next time a Boston team is vying for a title, think curfew.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.