As tailgaters' "Hawk Heaven" grows, so does police presence
Seattle police Officer Raul Vaca slowly twisted his mountain bike through a maze of blue and green jerseys, buffet tables with elaborate...
Seattle Times staff reporter
FREE TAILGATE PARTY Safeway stores, bristling over Seattle's recent dead-last ranking among NFL tailgating cities, is hosting a free tailgate party Sunday before the Seahawks' game against the St. Louis Rams. "The Safeway Game Day Experience" will set up from 8 a.m. to kickoff in the north parking lot in the southwest corner near the ticket windows. There will be free food, large-screen TVs, nonalcoholic beverages, games and prizes.
Seattle police Officer Raul Vaca slowly twisted his mountain bike through a maze of blue and green jerseys, buffet tables with elaborate spreads and makeshift games of horseshoes while patrolling "Hawk Heaven."
As the Seahawks tailgaters whiled away the time leading up to last Sunday's game with the New Orleans Saints by eating all manner of food and drinking an equally diverse assortment of beverages, Vaca handed out scores of photocopied fliers warning it is illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the Qwest Field parking lot. He and two other bicycle officers ordered people to dump the contents of their bottles of beer — or at least pour them into a less-conspicuous plastic cup.
As police patrols go, there is certainly more hazardous duty than keeping order among the throngs who gather before — and sometimes after — Seahawks home games. But police say the growing popularity of tailgating outside Qwest Field has prompted them to increase the number of officers to five patrolling the area dubbed Hawk Heaven.
Thus far, Seattle police haven't encountered the level of violence that has occurred at some tailgating parties, such as the September 2005 fatal shooting of an undercover police officer outside a football game between the University of Central Florida and Marshall University.
The main issues they confront are people who are unaware or simply ignore the fact that it is illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the parking lot and those who fail to use the nearby portable toilets.
Still, they don't want to put a damper on the party, hence the fliers.
"We're in the educational process. We do enforcement when it's necessary, specifically minors consuming alcohol," said Seattle police Sgt. Brian Kraus, who oversees the department's tailgating bike squad.
The officers make sure people don't tailgate after the game, as a way to combat drunken driving and brawls, Kraus said.
"You don't want to be too much of a stickler," said Officer Simon Edison. "You want people to have a good time."
Though the Seahawks have been in town since 1976, claiming a piece of asphalt outside the team's stadium and adorning it with house speakers, a gas grill and a flat-screen TV has become a phenomenon during the Qwest Field era. "When the Kingdome was here nobody was tailgating," said Randy Stevenson, who owns the Mojo Market on Occidental Avenue South.
But now, with 67,000 ticketholders and another 5,000 showing up in search of cheap tickets, everyone has "to do something to be part of the action," Stevenson said.
"It's about people having fun and having a good time," Stevenson said. "It's a different crowd. Football fans are 'give me four hot dogs.' Mariner fans are 'give me one veggie dog.' "
Tastes aside, tailgating can heighten the fans' experience, offering a place to mingle, eat and party with fellow fans. Police are there to make sure the party doesn't get out of hand.
While Kraus admits that fistfights and groups brawling are uncommon, he said the "crowd is a little different if they win or lose." He said fights are more prevalent during games against the Oakland Raiders because of the teams' long-standing rivalry.
Though having an open container of alcohol on a city street is illegal, Kraus said officers' only focus is keeping people from carrying around beer cans or bottles.
"If they do get drunk and obnoxious, the cans and bottles can be used as weapons," Kraus said. "I have never taken a report of someone being injured after being struck by a plastic cup."
Police couldn't provide the number of citations they've handed out and arrests they've made since the tailgating patrols started. They said there is increased police presence on Occidental Avenue South, in the form of traffic officers, because the NFL has beefed up its security around football stadiums across the country.
Greg Aiello, spokesman for the NFL, said there is no specific threat, but "security, since 9/11, has changed for everybody."
With police blocking vehicle traffic from Occidental Avenue South before the game, the narrow street quickly transforms into a party, thick with crowds hollering and vendors selling everything from apparel to kettle corn, hot dogs and Philly cheese-steak sandwiches. Members of the tailgating bicycle squad still push their way through.
Last Sunday, the bike officers were greeted with high-fives, drunken cheers from brawny men smeared with face paint, and the occasional girl wanting them to pose for a photo. One officer was flashed by a girl looking for Mardi Gras beads.
Lake Tapps resident David Hanson said he has become a tailgating zealot over the past five years. He admits that when he started pulling his RV up to the stadium, he was one of the few.
"It's getting better. Seattle is starting to turn into a football town," Hanson said. "You can come here, tailgate and have a great time. It used to be if we had beer, we would be shut down by the cops."
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:46 AM
Exxon Mobil wins ruling in Alaska oil spill case
NEW - 7:51 AM
Longview man says he was tortured with hot knife
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.