“Half the people that I’ll arrest tonight will wake up in the morning and not remember half of what happened. It’s like Jeykyll and Hyde,” says Officer George Rusnak, his eyes scanning the quiet Georgetown streets from his patrol car. “Most of them are really good people that just drink too much.”
Rusnak has been on patrol with the Metropolitan Police Department for 13 years, and sees the same things every night when Georgetown, GW and American universities begin their academic years. MPD allowed The Hatchet to ride along with them Saturday and see college drinking from the other side of the badge.
“College kids think that we don’t know what goes on. We know where all the biggest parties are and which bars don’t check IDs as well as they should,” Rusnak explains. “Today is the first weekend of the year where students are back at school and they’ll be lots of them who’ll be breaking the law.”
Officers in the Second District, who cover the campuses of GW, American and Georgetown, pulled in 20 underage drinkers Friday night and Rusnak expects to see about the same number tonight.
“We don’t see many nice people on the street after midnight,” he says.
Tonight is Rusnak’s birthday, and he will spend it chasing one taxi fare dodger, a peeping tom and hordes of intoxicated college kids. Some people he lets go with a warning and some people he takes to jail.
“Alcohol makes people brave,” he says. “Sometimes you have to take people in and sometimes you let them go, it is all about discretion.”
It is this way every night.
“Kids having fun at these parties and drinking on the street hate cops because we enforce the law,” he says, his arm hanging out the window of the patrol car on the warm evening. “We see this stuff every night and it’s not fun for us.”
Second District night shift officers see residents at their worst. It is not long before a call comes over the scratchy radio in Rusnak’s car – loud party and drunk and disorderly conduct.
When we arrive on the scene of what was once a hopping house party near the Georgetown University gate, other cops are already on the scene. There are students everywhere, leaning out of windows and on the porches watching the drama unfold. Two plainclothes officers are handcuffing an evidently intoxicated young woman and trying to ascertain who she is.
Rusnak and another officer jog around the back of the house to catch revelers desperately fleeing out the back.
“These guys just never get it,” says one of the plainclothes officers who could pass for one of the partygoers if not for the badge hanging around her neck. “Every year it is the same places, same people, same days of the week.”
The formula is simple; Thursday the cops go after bars, Friday and Saturday are house party nights. Students who get caught drinking on the first weekend of the school year should know better, explains Rusnak.
Officers place the handcuffed young woman in the backseat of Rusnak’s police cruiser. She is shaking and crying. It is her first weekend in Washington – a freshman at Georgetown. Rusnak returns from his pursuit empty handed.
“It’s not like you committed murder,” Rusnak explains to the woman in the backseat. “You’ll graduate college and you’ll get a job, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a beer bust.”
But what seems mundane and routine to Rusnak and the hardened officers of the Second District is probably the most terrifying experience of the prisoner’s young life. She whimpers something about her parents not understanding. Because her hands are cuffed behind her back she can’t wipe the tears that are streaming down her face.
Rusnak and other officers teach a mandatory freshman alcohol awareness class at Georgetown. Though Rusnak insists that preventing one alcohol-related death makes the classes worthwhile, they don’t seem to have deterred college drinking tonight.
“We hope they learn from it,” he says. “That’s all we can do.”
A few minutes later a call comes through to transport, another arrested student, this time for public consumption of alcohol.
Near the Georgetown library, the police stopped a woman for drinking beer from an open container on the sidewalk. They put her in the back of the car with the weeping freshman.
“I have been in London for the past year,” our newest passenger explains. “It is legal there. This sucks.”
Rusnak laughs. He has heard all the excuses from some of the brightest student minds in the country.
“Yeah, everyone here thinks they’re lawyers,” he says. “They think that they can talk their way out of anything.”
Rusnak calls them “street lawyers,” students who, after a few beers, will engage the police in legal debates on the street.
“The first thing that people always say is, ‘you didn’t read me my rights,'” explains Officer Ben Fetting, one of Rusnak’s partners. “They don’t understand that you only have your rights read if you are being questioned. If you get caught underage and drinking alcohol you don’t get your rights read to you.”
Rusnak takes the two students back to the station for processing.
In the station, amidst the coffee cups, officers are dutifully tagging alcohol on a table behind the desk – captured evidence from underage drinkers. Bottles of vodka and gin, and cases of beer will be destroyed by the city.
After processing, our captured freshman reveals she is 17 and is released after a call to her parents. Our second prisoner is of legal age and will get a $10 fine for public consumption. They will both be released tonight.
As the night rolls on Rusnak takes several other calls, nearly all of which are alcohol-related.
At first glance it seems a waste of time for highly trained officers to be chasing drunken kids around a college campus, stopping everyone on the street who is holding a glass or open bottle. Fetting and Rusnak understand the situation differently.
“Students don’t understand that people live around the university,” Rusnak says. “(Students) are the worst problems that we deal with in this area.”
Officer Fetting puts it differently.
“How may alcohol related deaths were there at GW last year?” he asks. “We made about 600 arrests last year. We are just trying to keep everyone in the community safe.”
Soon we get a call to go to GW, where the police have arrested a student on New Hampshire Avenue.
“The difference between Georgetown students and GW students is the GW students are smarter about their drinking,” Fetting says.
He explains that GW students keep their partying inside, while Georgetown students are more likely to take it out into the streets.
Rusnak and I head back to Georgetown. After passing a group of students walking on the street he pulls over the car and jumps out. He checks to see if the glasses they are carrying contain alcohol. It turns out to be water. Rusnak grins tightly, wishes the group a nice evening and hops back in the car.
“That’s rare,” he says.
Our last encounter of the night is a group of belligerent Irish tourists exiting a bar in Georgetown. Rusnak spotted one carrying a bottle out of the bar and stops the cab they have hailed. The suspect had clearly been drinking and offers a bit of lip to Rusnak, who snaps the cuffs on him and puts him in the back of the car.
“Some parents don’t teach their kids right,” says Rusnak. “I’m not stopping people on the street and saying, ‘you need to go to (Alcoholics Anonymous). Some just need to be caught to learn.”