West Point City Council discusses West Point Day, managing large gatherings

Published 8:00 am Thursday, October 28, 2021

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Months after dealing with a major crowd during West Point Day — held every year on Labor Day weekend — the West Point City Council discussed how to better handle the event in the future.

Everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting said West Point Day has gotten out of hand over the years, noting that it needed to be regulated. However, not everyone agreed how to make the situation better in future years.

The most recent West Point Day made headlines due to the decision to cut off power in the area of East 9th Street due to a large crowd in the area. Police Chief Donald Britt said Tuesday night that cutting off the power was a mistake, but he discussed the issues that officers have dealt with over the years at the event.

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“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “That event in that location is not safe.”

Britt said the later it gets in the day, the worse problems caused by West Point Day become.

“People don’t want to leave,” he said. “They won’t leave. They leave and go to the gas stations. They block the gas pumps … We cannot have a day of lawlessness.”

He said one year the event got so unruly that law enforcement seriously considered calling in a SWAT team.

“People were throwing things at officers, throwing balls, bricks,” he said. “Wouldn’t leave.”

Councilwoman Deedee Williams said she wanted to discuss West Point Day with the council because it’s the council’s business if situations occur in which the safety of residents is compromised. She emphasized that the city needs to be more prepared for the event should something go wrong.

“One year, in order to disseminate the crowd, we had drug dogs brought out,” she said. “Not a good look.”

Britt said only one dog was present at this year’s event, and it was there to protect the officers. Williams made the point that many people are afraid of dogs.

“So, they’re running all over, stepping on each other, [with the] potential to hurt people,” she said. “There might have been some people with minor injuries as a result of that.”

Williams said this year helicopters were used to control the crowd. The point of using helicopters, according to Britt, was to see where people were.

Williams said the people in the streets would have kept emergency vehicles from getting through.

“So not by any means am I saying there are not issues that need to be addressed when something like this takes place,” she said. “But by the same token, when it takes place, we’ve got to respond, and we need to not be afraid to talk about what happened, what was good, what was bad, what can we do to improve if that happens next time and make some decisions before the pressure is on.”

Williams said the City of West Point seems to want to put its head in the sand rather than confront the problems presented by West Point Day. She brought up the city turning off electricity to deal with this year’s West Point Day.

“I am not pointing the finger at anybody who made the decisions,” Williams said. “I’m just pointing the finger really at us for not having a better plan and better strategy before the fact rather than being so reactive at eight o’clock on Sunday night before Labor Day.”

She said she didn’t want things to get out of hand due to the large crowd.

“The last thing I want is for somebody who’s afraid of that many folks that don’t look like them to go in, grab their gun instead of their Taser or whatever and shoot somebody running away,” she said. “… It concerns me that we’re getting into the mindset of using dogs, helicopters. And there are times, places where that’s necessary. But West Point Day is not, in my opinion, one of those situations.”

Williams said West Point Day needs a sponsor but that the city shouldn’t be the sponsor. She said sponsors should decide where the event is held. She said West Point Day went well one year when it was sponsored by West Point Vision.

“They spent a lot of money, did a lot of fundraising to be able to do it in a way, the fashion that was prescribed by the city,” she said. “To my knowledge, there were no incidents that would make me think it was not successful.”

Councilman the Rev. Gerald Ledbetter said he thought the biggest problem with West Point Day was that it can’t decide what it wants to be.

“Is it going to be an event or is this a private party?” he said. “Is this a few residents that get together, and they want to keep the event or the party contained to their property? Or is this an event that’s going to spill over into the streets and into those vacant lots and up the street and into the highway and over into church property?”

Ledbetter said there should be an insistence on events like West Point Day being permitted.

“I don’t think you can have an event that’s going to attract 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 people and allow that thing or any event not to be permitted,” he said. “Somebody has got to be responsible at the end of the day.”

Ledbetter said West Point Day has the potential to be great or dangerous and that planning for it is imperative.

“I think the police department needs to be involved, public safety needs to be involved,” he said. “I think sponsoring organizations need to be involved. And I think it must be permitted.”

Councilwoman Sandra Thornton suggested finding out how other cities handle similar events.

Councilman Dr. Joseph R. Downs said another gathering happened months before West Point Day that required backup and support.

“So, I think the question is more than just West Point Day,” he said. “I think it’s what happens when a whole bunch of people get together that were not permitted and maybe not doing things in a wholesome manner.”

Mayor Steve Tramell said it’s one thing to have a small gathering at home and another to have one as large as West Point Day.

“To have 3,000, 4,000,  5,000 people, to promote an event that large for our community, as small as our community is, as small as our police force is, on a holiday weekend when [we] cannot control it, is irresponsible,” he said.

Williams argued that an event as large as West Point Day could bring in a lot of revenue for West Point, especially because it attracts people from outside the city. Ledbetter argued that the opposite can happen if people prevent businesses from operating properly. He said when police have asked people to leave in the past, people have deliberately parked in a filling station parking lot. And because they were told to turn their music down, they played it louder.

“And that’s disturbing the peace,” he said. “Nobody’s making any money during that time because nobody can get in and out of the filling station. And it always happens when the sun goes down, without fail.”

Williams said she lives near Ledbetter and that she hasn’t witnessed what he was talking about. She said the council should continue its discussion at a later date.