In preparation for the next four hours, two hulking security guards strategically park their cars to wall off an alleyway next to a house. It’s 9 p.m., a party at this house near 14th Avenue and Ferry Street is nearly underway and as the night wears on, people will increasingly cut through the adjacent alley on their way to Little’s Market or Max’s Tavern to grab a quick snack or close out the night. The security guards have decided that the path creates too much congestion and that cars will limit foot traffic. Their presence is more of an iron gate than a velvet rope.
“It only takes a couple of people for a party go wrong,” said Erik Hartmann, owner and chief officer for Oregon Event Enterprises, a private security firm. Tonight, he and Joseph Hernandez, a co-worker, are watching over the party until 1 a.m. As a colorful and excited group of students walks up to the house’s lawn, the pair of guards ensures partygoers file up the front steps rather than linger around the sidewalk. Just next door, another party starts, erupting with music, but it won’t be covered by the firm.
Hartmann’s outfit normally runs security for festivals and large venues, but its 300 working members are pleased to work just about anybody’s door. Festival or house party, they’re simply happy for the business and lately, business is booming.
According to Hartmann, the firm’s house party-related business has spiked 80 percent since the City of Eugene’s Ordinance on Unruly Gatherings, known by many as the Social Host Ordinance, became enforceable on April 1. And because the ordinance carries a base $350 fine — stacking with any violation that prompted a police response to begin with — students have begun to shell out a little extra money for protection. For many, the $25 hourly fee — at a minimum of four hours — is worth it. That’s where Hartmann and Hernandez come in.
“Before, it was more of an issue of us making sure only people who were invited were coming,” Hartmann said. “Now they’re more concerned that we just help them have a good time. People are preemptively hiring us to put a cap on it for them if it gets to a point where they’re going to get in trouble.” The ordinance targets parties that grow into “unruly gatherings.” The ordinance defines such as events as those in which alcohol is served and that also exhibit two out of the following seven criteria: minors in possession, public urination, fighting or noise disturbances. It took barely a week before the ordinance claimed its first casualty: a pinning party where seven students were cited $700 each.
“It’s incredibly worth it to spend $20 out of your own pocket to not get a huge fine from the ordinance,” said Jonoe Lange, a junior whose party on 14th Avenue and High Street came dangerously close to running into “unruly” territory. “When you have a security guard, the police will talk to him first, so we knew it was a good bet to have a safe party and not get busted. They respect us having a security guard so we can end it safely and without incident.” Hartmann’s company is in constant contact with the Eugene Police Department. That working relationship enables them to act as liaisons between students and police.
Before the party, Lange and his roommates pooled their money together for a guard. The investment paid for itself when some of his roommates noticed the party getting too big and saw an unmarked police car nearby. The housemates urged their hired guard to quash the activity. “It was successful,” Danny Johnson, the guard, said. “The cops didn’t come. When they drove by, they saw that the place was being kept together.”
EPD Sgt. Kyle Williams, the officer who drove by Lange’s party but was not called to the scene, appreciates the effort taken by students to keep things under control. “Anything we can do to smooth out that interaction between us and the students is a welcome endeavor,” Williams said. In this case, seeing a party with security nearby helped Williams decide to move on, saving taxpayers the reported $864 bill attached to police response.
“(It’s) not just having the security there,” he said, “but that the people throwing the party had put the effort into taking steps to avoid a negative police response.”
In this respect, Hartmann and Hernandez are walking, talking deterrents. They tower beside the party’s entrance, demanding good behavior merely by standing with their arms crossed. Students trying to carry drinks outside are told to stay on the porch, and random students scoping out the party from the lawn are asked a scarier version of the “Who do you know here?” question.
Hartmann, in particular, has become a fixture at parties thrown by this house. As party-goers shuffle into the house, a few stop to chat with him and even ask how his daughter is doing. Meanwhile, the party next door blares its music. Although it stays relatively under control, a police car rolls by and flashes its lights briefly just to keep everybody honest.
City Councilor Alan Zelenka has been one of the most vocal supporters of the ordinance since it was proposed in 2011. Today, nearly three months after the ordinance passed and two months since EPD has begun enforcement, he is pleased with the results. “My assessment so far is that it’s working pretty well,” he said. “It hasn’t been applied very often, because it hasn’t needed to. I think there’s a lot less out-of-control parties than I’ve seen in the past.” According to EPD, there have been three citations of the ordinance in two months, two of which were college parties.
He’s most pleased, however, that students are policing themselves.
“That exactly was the intent,” he said. “Not specifically that security would be involved. It was really more about bringing more attention to the issue of out of control parties.”
With summer on the horizon, spring term is usually the most active for student parties. Party activity this spring has lulled in comparison to that of previous years, though Williams isn’t ready to attribute any changes to the ordinance. “Generally, the spring partying has been down, but it’s been hard to say or point at one cause or the other,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell if it’s a lighter spring in terms of partying or whether it’s been affected by the social host ordinance.”
Nearing 1 a.m., an SUV from the fire department passes the party off 14th and Ferry, flashes its lights quickly and drives on. Hernandez expects they’re just taking a lap, that they’ll circle back and tell the party that it’s breaking fire codes, but it doesn’t return. Meanwhile, Hartmann talks to an unfamiliar group of drunk young men who want to cut through the alley on their way to Max’s. They start wailing on belligerently about public property, but the guards just make simple move-it-along gestures. The young men leave in a huff.