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Towson's perfect storm

Our view: Last Saturday's disturbance along York Road may have been a one-off incident, but that doesn't mean that all of the stakeholders involved can't learn from the experience and find ways to prevent a repeat

5:09 PM EDT, September 25, 2012

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Perhaps the most charitable description of the melee involving thousands of young people in Towson Circle that occurred last Saturday is that it was a well-intended event that ended up being too well attended. The sequence of events that spun out of control for several hours may have been unforeseeable, but local merchants, county police and Towson University officials, who meet regularly to coordinate their activities regarding public safety, need to use this incident to figure out where their efforts were lacking and how they can respond more effectively the next time the unexpected occurs.

It appears that few, if any, of the thousands of young people visiting the circle that evening came there to make trouble. Nor did the owner of the Recher Theatre, where the disturbance began, have any reason to suspect that a charitable event and party sponsored by a fraternity chapter at his venue might cause a disturbance; he had previously rented space to the group's members without incident. And Towson University officials had prepared in advance for an influx of visitors for the school's homecoming weekend by beefing up campus security and hiring extra off-duty county police officers to patrol the surrounding area. None of the reported incidents took place on school grounds.

The problem seems to have started when the Recher Theatre began turning people away from the fraternity event after the building reached its legal capacity of 630 guests. Unbeknownst to the theater owners, however, the event had been advertised widely on social networking sites and continued drawing young people from colleges and universities across the Baltimore-Washington region. Since the event was not ticketed — people simply paid for admission when they showed up — it appeared the event was grossly overbooked when several hundred people ended up milling outside the venue and then began spilling into the streets as the evening wore on. By the time hundreds more people leaving Towson's homecoming football game started converging on the area, police had lost control of the crowd.

In the confusion, it became impossible to tell which young people were from Towson's events and which were from other area colleges there for the party or others just wandering through. The longer the upheaval went on the less it mattered. At its height, thousands of people were involved in what had become a perfect storm of disorganized and anxious humanity.

Police made half a dozen arrests for disorderly conduct and failing to obey an officer's commands — actually a vanishingly small number compared to the number of people caught up in the episode — but the only serious incident of violence appears to have involved a young man apparently unrelated to either the school or the fraternity group who was shot in the hand. There was no serious damage to property or businesses, and after a few hours the crowd melted away of its own accord.

A spokesperson for the Towson business community called the disturbance an isolated incident that no one saw coming, and to a certain extent that's probably true. Still, the school, the theater and local merchants should have been better prepared to deal with an emergency than they were. By definition, such rare events can't be predicted, but that doesn't mean authorities should be powerless to cope with them.

That's particularly true for Towson University officials, who care deeply about the responsibility they bear for the safety of students at the school. No Towson students were hurt or arrested, but that may have been a matter of luck as much as anything. And it may not be true next time a large crowd unexpectedly materializes in the area. Towson business groups and the police plan meetings to review what happened and consider what might be done better in the future. The university has been part of such discussions in the past, and it needs to be part of this one.