SB Nation

Steven Godfrey | December 5, 2014

Iron Bowl cops

What it's like to police 100,000 people during the year's biggest game

12:45 PM

"$40 ... $40 ... Wow, look at that. $50. $50 to park."

Tuscaloosa Police Sgt. Brent Blankley drives an unmarked Ford Expedition eastbound on University Blvd., known as The Strip. A straight run from downtown, The Strip is a collection of college apartments and gas stations that gives way to a half-mile of restaurants and college bars, ending at the foot of Bryant-Denny Stadium. In 12 hours, it will be a struggle to keep The Strip clear for even emergency traffic. Out-of-town commuter fans covet every patch of grass.

In 12 hours, it will be a struggle to keep The Strip clear for even emergency traffic.

Tuscaloosa's game day parking is terrible, because on-campus football game day parking is terrible wherever you go. But what makes it especially terrible for Alabama is the small-town school's national appeal. Lifelong Alabama fans are often first-time attendees and completely unfamiliar with the physical University. They get towed for parking in fire zones or obstructing traffic.

Last week, Alabama played Western Carolina in an afterthought homecoming game. With the Iron Bowl looming, most ticket holders sold their seats at discounted rates.

"Last weekend was a weird group," one cop says. "We had a guy who had injured himself, public intox, who told us to go F ourselves and then took off running. And on the way he threw a bag full of Xanax onto the canopy of a bar."

"I get this guy last week who walks up to me and asks where he should park at," Blankley says. "He shows me two tickets, ‘See, I bought my tickets. Where do these tickets let me park at?' It was his first time to actually come to a game. I felt terrible for him. Buddy, good luck."

Churches offer up their lawns. Apartment landlords force their tenants to park elsewhere for the weekend so they can charge by the space. On 8th Street, a group of college-aged kids simultaneously tailgate and -- beer cans in hand -- wave strangers to park on their lawn for $60. Three random cars crookedly hump what little grass is left on top of the curb.

"Watch. Let's see who's not 21. Just look for whoever turns away," Blankney says, rolling down his window.

"Hi!" he waves to the group.

"Roll Tide, Sir!" one responds.

Nearby on the corner of Queen and Paul Bryant Drive is a male in his 50s scalping tickets. This practice is legal with a permit in Alabama, which the man has, but enforcement of the permit and a recent sting of counterfeit ticket sales have strained the relationship with law enforcement.

"Hey, how are they selling?" Blankley asks the scalper.

"Just face value."

"Face value? What's the best ticket you've got?"

"Just $250. Face value."

"Yeah, right. Lower bowl Iron Bowl tickets going for face value," Blankley says as he rolls the window up.

On game day, the primary objective of more than 150 on-duty officers of the Tuscaloosa Police Department is, as always, safety. This means focusing on the following:

1. Drunk and disorderly conduct. The cops don't care if you're drinking without being an asshole. It's an Alabama football game, y'all. Have at it. Scores of fans wander with open drinks and lug cases of beer around. In the afternoon and pregame hours, TPD chooses to not lose the forest for the trees so long as you're cool about it.

"We don't have that many officers to chase down everyone holding a beer right now."

Some time between the end of the game and the close of business on The Strip at 2 a.m., officers start strictly enforcing the city's open contain policy again.

"If we chased down everyone holding a beer right now, we wouldn't be providing good police work to the community. And also that would be impossible, because we don't have that many officers to chase down everyone holding a beer right now," Blankley says.

2. Public intoxication that leads to victim status. In a college town, that means someone susceptible to assault, an alumnus who's lit up enough to easily be pickpocketed, or just your average hammered bro who might wander into traffic as easily as he might pass out on a sidewalk.

3. Crowd control. Specifically, outside of particular bars on The Strip or in pedestrian areas. For TPD, it keeps the "YOU WANNA GO, BRO?" type fisticuffs from spilling onto the street. The police pretty much hate any kind of crowd.

4. Minors. The city of Tuscaloosa enforces a curfew for children under 18. TPD has made an effort to ID for minors near and around bar areas and parties.

5. Homeland security measures. We'll get to that in a second.

6. Weather-related illness. Heat stroke is a major problem in September, so much so that Bryant-Denny installed cooling stations that provide free water. While the November weather is chilly today, it's far from hypothermia.

1:00 PM

TPD's mobile command center is a modest mobile home parked in a gravel lot next to Gallete's, one of The Strip's most famous college bars. Inside, the command center looks like a classic tailgater's RV has been stripped for military service. Laptops and radios fill every corner, with a full processing center in the front.

If you're arrested around Bryant-Denny tonight, you'll head to this mobile command center before heading to the pink-walled detention center downtown. It's a busy but quiet outside, and the monitors show various college football games.

On a counter near the entrance is "the sign in sheet," an arrest log marked in black letters on top: AUBURN. It's empty.

"Last game of the year!" one officer greets another.

"Last one!" he responds.

These cops are Alabama fans, most from birth, a few with encyclopedic stat knowledge and dogs named Julio and stories about screaming at the Kick Six. But these are also police officers working 16-hour shifts, gritting their teeth at the forecast of a crowded night and a potentially angry home crowd after a loss.

There are also Auburn fans working for TPD, but it's no longer advertised. According to Blankley, when Alabama cornerback Simeon Castille was arrested in 2007 for disorderly conduct, one of the officers on the scene, an Auburn grad, had a Tigers sticker on his squad car. An image of that made its way online with the tag "AUBURN INFILTRATED." Since then, no personal imagery is allowed on TPD vehicles.

1:30 PM

In post-9/11 policing, officers create choke points for vehicle traffic around a stadium.

Bryant-Denny Stadium is flanked by campus on the east and north Tuscaloosa on the south and west. Campus buildings and tailgaters on the university side are a natural blockade. But on the city's end, a series of shabby apartments and rental houses sit on a grid alongside Wallace Wade Drive. It would be possible to drive a car straight into a stadium pillar or a gate crowded with people and detonate an explosive device.

"That's why the fire trucks are here," Blankley says, pointing to two local engines parked in the middle of intersections between 11th and 12th Avenues.

The other terrorist obstacle is a series of dump trucks loaded with sand, parked around side streets that feed towards the stadium. Despite their size, they're inconspicuous amid the bustle. No passersby questions why heavy construction equipment loaded with dirt happens to be sitting, hazard lights blinking, 20 feet from a football game.

"And you know, I honestly don't think he knows why he's really here," an officer says, looking at the driver, who leans out the window of the truck, smoking a cigarette and staring into space.

"If it happened, he'd feel a slight drop in pressure and then he'd find out pretty quick," a University PD officer crossing our path says.

1:45 PM

The bomb dogs have to sweep the stadium after every wave of equipment arrivals, from caterers to marching bands to TV crews. As the dogs run through the bathrooms in the lower bowl's tunnel, Blankley maps out the distribution of officers.

"The people with tickets on the 50-yard line who've been coming for 150 years aren't going to cause you problems."

The University of Alabama Police Department works the student section, from area DD to area A. Everything else is manned by TPD, which places at least one officer in each portal opening in the entire 100,000-plus-seat facility.

The focal points of police staffing in Bryant-Denny are the "mix points" of fans, specifically between sections LL and MM in the southwest corner of the lower bowl. That's where the Auburn band will be, nestled under a Jumbotron and up against a section of Tide fans. There are twice as many officers in this area as any other section, a practice built by experience.

"The people with tickets 10 rows up on the 50-yard line who've been coming to games for 150 years aren't going to cause you problems," Blankley says.

He's right. During the game, I wander over to stare up at this group. The experience is akin to standing up and turning around on the front row of a crowded Sunday matinee at your local movie theatre. People stare right back, since most of them are sitting down with their arms crossed, regardless of the game's pitch at any moment.

LSU head coach Les Miles' wife Kathy sits at the LL-MM mix point every time LSU comes to Tuscaloosa. I ask Blankley if the Auburn head coach's wife, Kristi Malzahn, will be in LL-MM tonight. He laughs.

"Want to get in the helicopter?" he asks.

2:45 PM

Even Nick Saban's Alabama era is not without its inefficiencies. A questionably timed interstate construction project between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham narrows Interstate 20's westbound lanes throughout the fall near the town of Cottondale, causing traffic to back up on a normal weekday, let alone Iron Bowl weekend. TPD's use of a helicopter allows for up-to-the-second forecasting of game traffic.

The Bruno Event Team, contracted by UA, uses a laminated grid chart to measure traffic jam length by car totals at certain checkpoints. When things are really bad, traffic on the Interstate can back up seven miles from the Tuscaloosa exits, all the way to the Mercedes plant.

"A lot of folks are out today living their lives outside of football. People find that hard to believe."

At the moment, solid congestion has meant no major delays. Backups are marked from the air and noted before dispatch calls for assistance on a robbery in progress in Southeast Tuscaloosa. The helicopter lurches toward the area, stopping above a tree-lined suburban street at squad cars arrive from all points. The copter's nose dips a bit as it rotates in a circle, looking for any visual on the suspect. This goes on for minutes. The robbery is miles from the stadium and the tailgates and has nothing to do with game day, except for maybe a burglar assuming the home's residents were at the game.

"You can go in any direction off campus and The Strip, and it's still a fully functioning town. A lot of folks are out today living their lives outside of football. People find that hard to believe," Blankley says.

As the copter returns to the Tuscaloosa airport, it glides over Bryant-Denny. On the north side, crowds from the tailgates all the way to the bars have congealed at the intersection of University and Wallace Wade Drive. The stadium is still closed to fans. Auburn stands at midfield in prayer.

(Steven Godfrey)
4:00 PM

The most fights in one weekend anyone at TPD can recall came after "The Cam Newton Game," the 2010 Iron Bowl in which Auburn rallied from down 24 to beat the Tide.

"No explanation there. Auburn fans hung on and stayed in town and went out to every bar they could find," an officer says.

The worst everything -- traffic, fights, crowds, booze -- was the "LSU Field Goal Game," the 9-6 OT Alabama loss in 2011. In addition to the near-100,000 in and around the stadium, estimates are that almost that same name number came to town just to be there. LSU visits require the extra step of officers preparing for egregious amounts of open containers, which aren't restricted in most Louisiana cities. Officers greet LSU fans at the train station (Amtrak runs from New Orleans to Tuscaloosa) to explain the laws of Alabama as Tiger fans fill up the station, beers in hand.

Despite the cultural barriers, TPD loves LSU. For years, a group of visiting Tigers have made a point of tailgating close to TPD squad cars and offering the officers food.

"They offer us alcohol, too, to be honest. But we take the food," Blankley says.

For a Tuscaloosa police officer this is the ideal Alabama home football game:

1. An afternoon kickoff, preferably the CBS 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff, so the morning and midnight shifts don't have to work late or early. The CBS game falls squarely in the 2-10 shift.

2. Clear weather. Rain complicates car traffic and changes foot traffic in and out of Bryant-Denny and nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels.

3. A cold evening. "If it drops below 40 after the game, it puts a lot more people inside, win or loss. Folks here just don't want to get out in it," an officer says.

4. A blowout win. "Gets the stadium emptied gradually, lets traffic recover more, and it takes the fight out of lot of drunks on both sides," another one says.

5:45 PM

Fans line the pathways leading into the cathedral facade of Bryant-Denny's north entrance to welcome their Crimson Tide as they enter the stadium to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." Above, a prop plane flies a banner low that reads: "SHRIMP BASKETS HERE: GRILL, STEAM AND FRIED."

As we wander the crowd, Blankley, who is in uniform, is greeted by a man in a white turtleneck and a T.J. Yeldon jersey wearing a houndstooth baseball cap. He's a plain-clothes officer who has spotted a suspect believed to be using counterfeit money to purchase tickets.

The grassy area features statues of every Alabama coach to have won a national championship, including the statue of Bear Bryant, which was "defaced" with a Newton jersey, prompting Harvey Updyke's famous Auburn tree poisoning. Now it's one of the most heavily surveilled areas in the campus, city, and state.

Back at the mobile command center, there have been two arrests for drunk and disorderly, both college students, and a single-car DUI crash on The Strip.

6:10 PM

A call comes over the radio.

"Gate 40. Gate 40. Charles Barkley needs assistance. Gate 40. Charles Barkley needs an escort in, is being mobbed."

This is the second-best dispatch call of the weekend, the first coming around 8:30 on Friday night: "Unidentified male in a Boise State hoodie walking up the highway with a machete. Plain-clothes officer is approaching."

What you can't help but notice about Tuscaloosa is that the officer who called in the suspicious male didn't report any detail other than the specific college football team on the man's sweatshirt.

Barkley sits in contested border area, although surrounded on all sides by fellow Auburn fans. By the time we arrive, Chuck and his entourage settle in. Blankley informs officers in the field level and ramp portals of Barkley's location.

6:25 PM

What you notice most is how eager drunk people are to talk to uniformed police officers. Not inebriated people. Not folks in spirits. Drunks.

What you notice most is how eager drunk people are to talk to uniformed police officers.

"Which is the last thing I would ever think about doing when I was drinking at that age," Blankley says.

If this feels like contrarian thinking to you, you aren't drunk. But 22-year-old Allie is. Allie, a white female, roughly 85 pounds, 5'2, with a blue studded lip ring and an Auburn sweatshirt, is so very drunk. She dances up to Blankley, playfully waving her orange pom poms in his face.

"Ma'am ..."

"Are you Alabama fan?" she asks. "I used to be."

"Used to be?" Blankley asks.

"My hussssband is an Auburn fan. And you know what they say in the Bible?"

No one answers.

"It says to ressssspect your husband."

"Ma'am, is your husband here? You need to go sit down with him now."

Allie dances off, waving her pom poms up against the backs of the Alabama Million Dollar Marching Band as they exit the field. I chase her down and ask her if I can meet her husband.

"He's not here. I'm here with a friend, and heeee's right over there."

7:00 PM

"You can usually spot the trouble before it happens, because the trouble comes from the guy who is taunting before the big play, the guy who is already turned around yelling a few plays before," Blankley says.

Trying to rank the aggression of a thousand middle fingers would seem too vague in the Iron Bowl, but if you try staring up at a section of fans to watch their reaction to individual plays, it becomes a lot clearer than you'd expect.

We pinpoint a white male roughly 50 years old, about 140 pounds and average height in an all-white Alabama windbreaker and jeans, surrounded by Auburn students.

"You just know he saw his seats and got all fired up before the game, and then he and his buddy walked in and saw this," Blankely tells another officer.

He tells a man in a blue and orange Auburn Santa outfit to go fuck himself.

When Auburn scores its second touchdown, Windbreaker tells a man in a blue and orange Auburn Santa outfit to go fuck himself.

When Alabama scores on the ensuing drive, at the height of the stadium's ovation, he steps to the end of the row and jumps to the ground level, about four rows total, landing flat-footed in a pair of rubber-soled cowboy boots, and yells up at the sky, akin to a coyote howl. The entire affair visibly frightens a row of female Auburn students.

The officers who reprimand him speculate that this was a test action, designed to see what he could away with to Auburn fans in front of Alabama cops.

When Auburn scores twice before halftime, Blankely grimaces, reacting as a cop and not a fan.

"It's going to be a long night regardless. Could be a crazy one now, too."

Back at the mobile command center, there are three public intoxication arrests, one of whom was also charged with resisting arrest. The mobile command has averaged about three arrests a game day all season, and they're past five at halftime.

"We can't keep track of ejections. There's no way to keep track on how many people we tell to the leave the stadium," Blankley says.

9:46 PM

"Let's go. Let's go."

Blankley takes off. He saw officers disappearing into the portals before he got the call, which almost always signals a fight.

We run inside the tunnel to Gate 35, where three male officers stand outside the door to the women's bathroom.

"We gotta hold, hang on," one says.

Soon after, two female officers, one UAPD, one TPD, enter. Minutes later, they return with a white male in his early 20s, wide-eyed and frightened.

As Auburn's Nick Marshall is intercepted on the field, TPD officer Julie Mason explains the police response to a call from a frightened woman.

"We walk in there, and I can see him in the crack of the stall door. He's making noise, but I can tell he's just sitting there. So the first thing I do is hope that his pants are on. He won't respond at first, but we can see he's fully dressed.

"We get the stall door open and he's sitting like this [she puts her head in the palms of her hand on either side, and her elbows on her knees]."

"He said he was just ‘hanging out, got tired and decided to sit down.' So I asked him where his seats were so a friend could come get him, and he gives me a series of numbers -- 213482, something -- I think he was giving me his social."

10:30 PM

As Mason recounts, three more inebriated individuals approach Blankley to make friends, each worse than the last. As a 45-year-old woman offers an unsolicited explanation of her hatred of the cops (short version: passed out on a park bench after a work function), a young Auburn fan frantically grabs the Sergeant.

Behind us is a white male, late 40s, husky build with gray hair, standing in front of a group of Auburn student ambassadors (those kids in orange blazers you always see in crowd shots on TV), screaming, cussing, and goading them to yell back. In his left hand is a cell phone videotaping the students. In his right is the hand of his five-year-old-son, frightened to tears. The man is attempting to videotape Auburn students behaving poorly.

Not a word of his explanation to TPD is sensical, and the look on his son's face is haunting. Not two minutes after he's escorted out, a call comes over the radio. Blankley cups his hand over the speaker to hear.

"Two white females fist fighting in front of El Rincon on The Strip," he says. "Told you, it's gonna be a long night."

Blankley and Mason both exit the stadium to assume traffic and crowd posts outside.

Two minutes later, so does Barkley and his entourage, sans police escort, straight into a tunnel filled with celebrating Tide fans, and Barkley couldn't look less concerned.

(Steven Godfrey)
12:35 AM

In 14 hours, the worst incident witnessed is the arrest of an 80-year-old man for public intoxication. He could easily be charged with disorderly conduct, and when the time comes, resisting arrest, but the four TPD officers working the incident seem genuinely dumbfounded at the series of escalating actions.

The man is first spotted dancing in front of cars in the Publix parking lot near Bryant-Denny, which is used by hotel and parking shuttle services as a pick-up area. When TPD first approaches the man, dressed in slacks, a silk Alabama baseball jacket, and a Crimson Tide cap, he already has a fresh cut on his cheek and admits to having fallen at some point in the evening.

The officers check on his "well being" and escort him back to the shuttle line. Not three minutes later, he's pulled a woman -- initially thought to be his wife -- back out into traffic, trying to dance with her.

"Man, I'm really gonna have to arrest an 80-year-old man."

After another verbal warning, the man wanders back, this time falling to his knees. Upon further conversation it's revealed that his companion, decked out in fur-lined boots with white pom-poms, a houndstooth checkered dress, and a big blonde boufant, is not his wife, simply a "companion."

"For uh ... tonight, ma'am? Did you know this man before?" one officer asks. She doesn't clarify.

"Man, I'm really gonna have to arrest an 80-year-old man," one officer says. "That's a new record for me. I had two guys in their 70s, both DUIs."

The man ignores a growing crowd of police and fans and staggers out again. An ambulance is called for the man, who is now incapable of standing up. When the paramedics arrive, he refuses. When he lunges at the officers and tells them, "Fuck off, you motherfuckers, I'm not going goddamn anywhere!" he finally earns a trip to the mobile command unit's processing center, albeit after six officers try to tactfully cuff and place him on a police utility vehicle.

"So to review, no major bar fights after the Iron Bowl, but one 80-year-old man trying to fight the police," Blankley says.

1:45 AM

In about 30 minutes, the mobile command unit will shut down for the night, and all arrests will route directly through the city lockup. The total on the AUBURN log as of 2:15 a.m.: 10 arrests, including a domestic violence arrest for a man and wife outside the stadium, plus three juveniles detained for undisclosed violations, plus the earlier single car DUI wreck on The Strip, plus countless uncounted stadium ejections. The total more than doubles any home game this season, and triples at least three.

The total on the AUBURN log as of 2:15 a.m.: 10 arrests, plus countless uncounted stadium ejections.

The Strip is still swollen, to the point where the primary objective is to keep people out of the way of streets reopening for traffic. Naturally, this inspires student-aged drunks, all of them male, to play chicken with cruising vehicles, handing out high fives or jumping on the yellow line to dance.

Blankley and a group of officers sweep the western edge of The Strip after a club called in a 911 for multiple disturbances. Not an hour earlier, Blankley and other officers had wandered through at random and had been met by nervous-looking bar managers asking if there was a problem.

As police enforce a mandatory evacuation of the club, four Alabama players approach, dressed in official crimson warm-ups.

"Club's closed already?" one asks.

A post-Mardis Gras-style street sweep commences after the 2 a.m. close of alcohol sales, forcing University Avenue to overflow again.

A college-aged male in khaki shorts and a crimson polo hops into the median and begins what can best be described as a shuffling, leaning rendition of an Irish jig.

"GET OUT OF THE STREET!" a TPD officer yells.

"CAN I GET A ROLL TIDE?! I NEED A ROLL TIDE!" the kid yells back.

"ROLL FUCKING TIDE!" a driver in the opposite lane screams.

"FUCK AUBURN FOR FUCKING EVER!" a voice across the street replies

"GET OUT OF THE STREET, OR YOU'RE GOING TO JAIL," the officer yells.

Satisfied, the kid complies, crossing to the other side in a full sprint.

"Last game," another officer says, trying not to laugh.

"Roll Tide," a third officer replies.


Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Jason Kirk | Title Photo: Getty Images

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About the Author

Steven Godfrey is a senior reporter for SB Nation based in Nashville, Tennessee. A graduate of the University of Mississippi and a long suffering Atlanta sports fan, he can be reached on Twitter @38Godfrey.

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