More college normalcy brings rise in Amherst police, EMT calls

  • Amherst Police Department GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2022

AMHERST — College students returning for the fall semester in Amherst came back to a more traditional environment than a year earlier, with classes being held in person, dormitory rooms fully occupied and bubble-like campuses ended.

As an indication of some normalcy, even with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, both the police and fire departments reported increases in calls and incidents, in some cases exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

“Right now we are back to and surpassing our pre-COVID call rate,” said Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson.

An indication of this comes from the substance abuse calls, generally related to the consumption of alcohol and other drugs. From Sept. 1 until year’s end, there were 149 times when ambulances had to be dispatched to assist people who were intoxicated or under the influence, compared to just 33 such calls in the fall of 2020.

The nearly five-fold increase in calls brought the number to nearly the 151 substance abuse calls handled in the fall of 2019.

Those types of medical calls also tend to be more time consuming than others, Nelson said, with 80% or more of them requiring transport to a hospital for treatment, compared to about 70% of people being hospitalized for other medical calls.

The total number of medical responses rose by more than 75%, from 944 in the fall of 2020 to 1,665 in the fall of 2021. That easily exceeded the 1,448 medical calls in the fall of 2019.

Police also reported a jump in calls during the fall semester, from 4,535 in the fall of 2020 to 5,299 in the fall of 2021. But the department is still not back to the 6,470 service calls handled in the fall of 2019.

But even with the 17% increase in calls, the department undertook less enforcement related to quality-of-life issues, which often relate to loud parties and people being noisy as they walk through neighborhoods. There were just 19 noise and nuisance house tickets issued, compared to 145 given out in the fall of 2020. Arrests and summons to court related to noise complaints declined from 24 to 13.

Many of the students in town in the fall of 2020 were living off campus, and many of the calls at the time came from residents concerned about so-called superspreader events, said Police Capt. Gabriel Ting. Issuing tickets was a strategy that Ting said allowed police to take quick enforcement action and limit potential exposure to illness.

But this past fall that concern had diminished, and while police continued to break up parties, they were less inclined to issue tickets or arrest people.

Ting said noise complaints remained consistent, only rising from 263 in the fall of 2020 to 290 in the fall of 2021, nearly bringing the number up to the 298 two years ago. Large-scale parties that cause significant issues for neighborhoods have been on the decline, Ting said.

“The huge day drinks have been nonexistent for the past couple of years, even before COVID,” Ting said.

And even at those places where police had to go to break up parties, officers received mostly cooperation from tenants and their guests.

For the Police Department, perhaps the most striking difference in calls in the fall came from the significant increase in arrests of people for operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which in the preceding five full years averaged about 74 over 12 months. Yet last fall alone, 51 arrests were made, more than doubling the 23 the previous fall.

Ting said the higher numbers also may demonstrate some of the uneasiness on the part of people in coming out of COVID. In normal times, those people would have used public transportation, like the UMass Transit buses, or Ubers.

“Officers used to complain that Ubers would cause traffic headaches at parties and the bars, but that has dissipated,” Ting said.