Pullman punching back
PULLMAN – The days of drinking, brawling and forgetting about it the next day could become an expensive problem for would-be pugilists in this college town.
A spate of violence between Washington State University fraternities – including a fight in which a fraternity member suffered a severely broken jaw – has re-energized a months-long effort to pass an ordinance that would make fighting a civil infraction that would cost brawlers $250 for the first offense and $500 for the next.
“We as a police department are trying to draw a line in the sand, and say, ‘Hey, you don’t fight in Pullman,’ ” Commander Chris Tennant said. “We want to create an atmosphere where that is not the way you solve problems as adults in this community.”
Tennant said he hopes the tickets, which are similar to speeding infractions, will create a deterrent in Pullman to match Colfax’s reputation as a speed trap for motorists driving too fast. A patrol officer there made national news in 1987 when he ticketed an ambulance driver speeding through town.
“You don’t speed through Colfax,” Tennant said. “We want it known that you don’t fight in Pullman.”
Pullman police had not made an arrest as of Monday, but they continue to investigate the Oct. 27 fight in which a 20-year-old fraternity member suffered a broken jaw so severe that it required medics to transport him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
City Attorney Laura McAloon said officers seeking to solve the situation got little cooperation. But the next night, the victim’s fraternity brothers responded by confronting members of another fraternity, resulting in the arrest of one student for misdemeanor assault, she said.
“The problem with recent assaults is that nobody would cooperate,” McAloon said. “They had this code of silence where they wouldn’t cooperate with the police because it was another fraternity. In my mind … it certainly emphasizes the chief’s concern about why they need some type of city ordinance that doesn’t require a victim to charge someone.”
Although they didn’t identify the fraternities involved in the October incident, university officials cited safety concerns for their decision to remove freshman members from both the Delta Chi and Theta Chi fraternities and place them in residence halls for the remainder of the semester.
Three Delta Chi members declined to be interviewed last week. They referred all questions about the October incident to Branden Daubel, who is the president of the Washington State Chapter of the Delta Chi fraternity.
Daubel had already left for Thanksgiving break but he issued a news release last week. “We are cooperating with university officials and will continue to work closely with them to come to a resolution on these matters,” he said. “The actions of a few men show the chapter the very real consequences that could befall the entire group.”
But the ordinance could have some very real consequences for anyone who fights.
Tennant explained that officers often respond to a fight-in-progress call and find someone bleeding from the head and someone else bleeding from the knuckles. If neither of them claims to be the victim, the officer has little choice on how to proceed.
“I’ll pick on Greek Row,” he said. “You get 18- to 21-year-old males who have too much drinking and too much testosterone and they get into fights. The next morning they don’t want to press charges.”
Under the ordinance, both parties involved in the fight would receive the $250 ticket.
However, the ordinance would not, and could not, force anyone to forgo his or her lawfully given right to self-defense. Washington law does not require a person to retreat to become a victim of assault.
“If there is a victim willing to participate in the criminal justice system, we could charge assault,” McAloon said. “But what this is designed to address are those situations where there has obviously been a physical altercation and nobody is talking. So, we’ll cite them all and they can explain it to the judge.”
Tim Rusk, 21, who is a sophomore business major and member of the Alpha Kappa Lamda fraternity, said he doesn’t want to have to pay a fine for a fight someone else starts. “It would be adding insult to injury for someone to get a ticket for getting their (butt) kicked,” Rusk said. “I don’t think that would be fair.”
McAloon emphasized that the ordinance is intended for confrontations involving mutual combat.
“We found on noise violations and nuisance violations that if we get them into court on a civil infraction, their behavior improves,” she said. “If you get the participants of mutual combat before a judge … obviously they are sober at that point. And, they have to face up to their behavior.”
Colin Dickinson, a 21-year-old junior communications major and Alpha Kappa Lamda member, said students at WSU don’t go out looking for fights. They end up at a party or bar and something gets said and a couple of punches are thrown.
“I myself got into a couple (fights) this year,” said Dickinson. “It’s usually one punch and it’s over. Again, how are you going to fine someone for getting punched in the face?”
McAloon said she met with the Associated Students of Washington State University and no one raised objections to the proposed fight ordinance.
“I think we hear these grumblings that (city officials) are trying to victimize the victims,” she said, “but I think, generally, students support it.”
McAloon is still trying to iron out the wording of the ordinance, which was first proposed last year by Police Chief Ted Weatherly as one of his top goals. McAloon doesn’t expect the Pullman City Council to consider the ordinance until after the first of the year.
“I was skeptical that Pullman needed to write another law, but (city officials) were very supportive of it and asked me to draft an ordinance,” McAloon said.
Tennant said part of the problem is drafting an ordinance that will pass constitutional muster.
“I think there is a concern about how to actually implement this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s actually been done before.”
Dickinson and Rusk, both originally from Tacoma, agreed that the fight resulting in the broken jaw went too far. But they don’t think a new ordinance will change what happens at WSU and every other university.
Tennant said he’s lived and worked in Pullman for 25 years and the cycle of fighting comes and goes.
“But I think the injuries are getting more severe,” he said. A week ago “we had a guy who was knocked out. I think anytime you have these levels of assault, it strengthens the police’s case that we have an issue out there.”