Cops welcome revelers |

Cops welcome revelers

Sheila Gardner

Even for a casino, the odds are not very good: 100 law enforcement officers vs. 20,000 to 25,000 New Year’s Eve merrymakers at the Stateline core.

That’s why the planning starts in September and officers are ready to go with the flow.

“With so few officers, our philosophy is to be non-confrontational,” said Sgt.. Lance Modispacher, who will be marking his 16th New Year’s Eve at Stateline. “We’re not out to ruin anybody’s party.”

But that doesn’t mean the sheriff’s office will tolerate lawbreakers or activity that threatens public safety.

For the past five or six years, the policy at the sheriff’s office has been to allow celebrants to take over Highway 50 which runs the length of the Lake Tahoe casino core.

“The celebrants are welcomed by our officers into the street to celebrate,” Modispacher said. “We feel if we can invite them into the street, then we can invite them out of the street when they’re done.”

Sheriff Ron Pierini, a 20-year veteran of the New Year’s celebration, said the crowds started growing by leaps and bounds in 1977.

“Before that, you had individuals coming out of the casinos right after midnight. There were only about 1,000 people back then. Our concern was there was no other access around the casino, no loop roads. We only had about 20 officers at the Lake and thought that could be a problem.

“The next year when the crowd grew to 2,000 to 3,000 people, we knew this was not going to go away,” Pierini said. “It has increased 2,000 to 3,000 people a year. Right now, I estimate it to be 25,000.”

Over the years, the sheriff’s department has tried to keep Highway 50 open, but abandoned that idea in the early 1990s.

“The numbers of people were just too great,” Pierini said. “We have to be as passive as we can so the hostility against the officers and the crowd won’t be taken out all night.”

Over the years, the age of the celebrants has declined, Pierini said. He estimates that 40 to 45 percent are under the legal drinking age of 21.

“The biggest problem is that you have a very, very large crowd of young folks who become intoxicated and think they’re bulletproof,” said Modispacher. “They’ve had a little too much liquid buckshot.”

The sheriff’s department averages about 100 arrests on charges ranging from disorderly conduct, drug possession, minors in possession of alcohol and possession of fireworks.

Modispacher said the officers worry about injuries caused by fireworks.

“Fireworks are extremely dangerous,” he said. “The crowd is in such close proximity, it’s wall-to-wall people. We’re afraid someone could lose an eye. If we see someone throw these at head level into that crowd with a total disregard to safety for others – with an attitude like that – that particular individual will spend New Year’s Day in the bucket.”

Booking stations are set up in the immediate casino core area. Suspects are properly processed, documented and photographed, Modispacher said. Three vans are available to transport arrestees to the sheriff’s substation and jail at Stateline.

Lt. Al Baumruck has the authority to release suspects on bail, Modispacher said, depending on the serious of their offense. But District Attorney Scott Doyle also is on the scene.

“Not very many of us get the night off,” said Modispacher. “But we don’t mind. It’s something the county depends on us doing.”

In order to cut down on potential damage and injuries, metal, glass and containers are banned on the street.

“There’s no open alcohol for that evening,” said Modispacher. “If you are out in the street with a plastic cup of beer, you’re in violation. The casinos start serving alcohol in plastic cups early in the day. The reason is that in the past, officers have been the recipient of flying missiles. We haven’t seen that for quite some time.

“With the young people, the cold doesn’t seem to bother them,” he said. “Snowballs become a problem. The traditional snowball fight isn’t bad, but when somebody packs ice balls and throws them randomly and a lady gets hit in the face, it’s not fun anymore.”

In spite of the potential for mayhem, Modispacher said officers usually get along well with the crowd.

“I attribute it to our attitude setting the mood in the crowd,” Modispacher said. “People come up and want to shake your hand. A lot of people are from out of town. They want to take their picture with us because we’re wearing our shields and jumpsuits. Girls want to kiss you on the cheek. We let them do that because when you have 50 to 60 people watching officers mingling with the crowd, it sets a good mood and good attitude. I must get my picture taken with 30 to 40 people. It doesn’t hurt anything.”

Pierini said planning for New Year’s starts in September. Officers view videotapes of the previous celebrations.

“We have about 100 officers. We borrow a lot of people from Carson City, Nye County, the Nevada Highway Patrol, South Lake Tahoe, and every reserve able-bodied person who is warm and breathing will be there. We still have to have officers in the Valley and at Topaz monitoring what’s going on there,” Modispacher said.

“We really couldn’t do it without the help of the highway patrol,” he added.

Pierini said the crowd begins to disperse after the road opens about 1:30 a.m. Officers are particularly on the lookout for drunk drivers or pedestrians.

“We drench the area with patrol activity,” Pierini said. “We carry over a large number of our deputies until 5 or 6 a.m.”

The weather seems to have little effect on celebrants. Even last year’s rain, which began about 11:45 p.m., failed to dampen spirits. Ironically, Pierini said, in the 20 years he’s been working at the Lake, he’s never seen snow usher in the new year.

“It’s never snowed on New Year’s Eve,” Pierini said. “The latest it’s ever snowed is 8 p.m.”