How Sgt. Farrell holds rein on the rowdies

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SAN Diego police Sgt. Mary (Micki) Farrell might be called the Cagney or Lacey of the bleacher seats. In the fishbowl conditions of the modern stadium -- where beer-throwing rowdies, irate fans, and intoxicated hooligans often bring heated situations to a boil -- she routinely steers potentially violent situations out of the danger zone with cool confidence.

``Micki has a great deal of skill in understanding people and how they behave differently in crowds,'' says her supervisor on stadium detail, Sgt. Larry Miller. ``Part of it is education, part is instinct, part is experience, and part is caring deeply,'' he says.

As the world saw in the European Cup soccer finals in Brussels, back in May 1985, much is to be learned about the potential of mayhem, even death, resulting from uncontrolled emotion in crowded sports arenas. For example, last month an angry fan threw a knife from the stands of Yankee Stadium, grazing the arm of Wally Joyner as he walked toward the third base dugout with California Angel's winning pitcher, Mike Witt.

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Sergeant Farrell's defensive techniques are simple, but not easily acquired: education and experience. One of a handful of women police officers, holder of a law degree, former teacher and coach of Harlem youth, she is also the daughter of a Marine Corps general who taught her confidence and self-reliance at an early age. Add to that a personal vision sharpened through years on the police beat, her natural talent, and the inclination to help others -- and you find how she established a record of success in this most untenable of arenas.

Says Dr. Irving Goldaber, director of the Center for the Study of Crowd and Spectator Behavior in Miami: ``The potential for stadium violence has always been there, but has become much more overt and blatant in the last 10 years with the growth of sports, mega-celebrations, and big-time rock concerts.''

Just such a possibility for violence occurred midway through a recent San Diego Padres baseball game, where crowd noise had reached a feverish pitch. According to a concerned-citizen account reaching the desk of Police Chief William Kolander, ``Fans from the opposing team . . . went from being noisome hecklers to obnoxious intruders. Padres fans seemed on the verge of retaliation.''

To heighten tension, a group of young men began blowing up beach balls to heckle the security guards. Shortly, eight to 10 security guards and armed policemen descended on the area, intending to eject the youths from the game amid cries of protests from nearby crowds. A pushing-and-shoving match ensued.

``The atmosphere was torrid,'' says Faye Hall, who was watching from a nearby section. ``The likelihood of violence became a probability. There appeared to be no simple solution.''

Enter Farrell, who was dispatched to the scene via walkie-talkie from a central command post atop the stadium. ``She immediately sent all the other policemen and security away and sat down with the troublemakers,'' Mrs. Hall says. Farrell stayed in the stands talking for more than 20 minutes. The crowd quieted and began watching the game again. When she left, the perpetrators were smiling. Later, more than 30 grateful people surrounded Farrell, congratulating her on a job well done, thanking her for averting what seemed like unavoidable disaster in the stands.

What happened?

In an extended conversation on crowd control, Farrell drew the bottom line at understanding the word, ``power.'' ``I climbed over the bannister and sat down next to them and said, smiling: `Hi! How ya doin'?' '' she recalls.

``I've learned from years of police work that everyone sees themself as very important to themselves. When you recognize that and give them back their importance, 99 times out of a hundred, they are perfectly willing to let common sense reign, to let you do your job [as a police officer].''

How does one ``give them back their importance''?

Listen, recognize other points of view. ``Part of recognizing power,'' Farrell says, ``is the clich'e of `understanding where they are coming from,' which means sizing up beliefs about everything from his world view to his view of the particular situation. That means not assuming who's guilty. . . .''

Farrell said she spent the first 10 minutes of the encounter listening, acknowledging, nodding. ``Much of what was pouring out of them was pure ego,'' she said. ``They were talking about themselves as important people in real estate who closed important and big deals all the time. I let them have their say.''

Meeting people on common ground.

``When I leaped over the bannister and joined them in their seats, I was literally at their own level, eye to eye, not dishing out commands from above,'' Farrell says. Appeal to reason. Farrell says she took the information from their outpourings as grist for her next direction. ``Since they so obviously understood the principle of buying, and getting what they paid for, I used the analogy to explain the real purpose of this ballgame -- entertainment for paying customers -- and what my job was as insuring paying customers they get what they paid for -- an unencumbered view of the ballgame,'' she says.

Project confidence, not control. Farrell says that what a person feels about himself has an ``awful lot to do with what he projects. If you're uncomfortable, afraid, or insecure, they pick up on this and use it against you.''

She acknowledges that her initial gesture of humor -- ``Hi! Howya doin'?'' -- could have been a risky thing to try in such an escalated emotional situation. But she says she tried it based on years of experience in understanding what it means to be confident as a person.

Another aspect of confidence comes from understanding that not every individual views the world with the same set of premises. Farrell said her biggest inroads to understanding this came from teaching math and reading to East Harlem youths and coaching them in her spare time while living in New York in the early 1970s.

``I immediately realized there was a whole new set of rules from where I grew up in Coronado, Calif.,'' she remembers. ``I knew that until I learned their ways, I was a guest. I couldn't judge or put them down or criticize until I understood.''

Also, with the disposition of having to train those in a different cultural milieu, Farrell learned the importance of communicating over and over what she was trying to do, and how she was trying to do it.

``You may think it's obvious what you are and what you are trying to accomplish,'' she says of being a policeman, teacher, or coach. ``But the other person may be coming at things from such a different angle . . . that you should bend over backwards to clarify who you are and what you are about -- in a nonthreatening way.''

Farrell says she distinctly remembers handling situations poorly when she first became a member of the force: ``Early on, on a bad day, I could become rude, demeaning, officious, arrogant,'' she says. ``Almost always it led to matters getting worse.'' Now she avoids ``getting up in somebody's face,'' as the department calls it.

Walking the stands with Farrell at a subsequent Padres game -- watching her disarm verbal barbs with knowing smiles, or converse earnestly with spectators in strategic proximity to hecklers -- it is evident she understands crowd behavior.

``I hate to say it,'' says a fellow police officer, ``but a lot of people come to games just to get in a fight.''

``There is a certain element that attends [large sporting events] solely for vicarious self-aggrandizement,'' adds Dr. Goldaber. ``As the individual feels he is becoming more and more a diminished speck in the complex modern world, he can seek substitutes for power by identifying with a winning team.''

Referring again to her three years in Harlem, Farrell recalls being caught up in a riot -- and literally watching the goings on from the protection of a nearby trashcan. ``I could see that besides anger, there was a call for attention and a kind of needed release going on,'' she says. ``That is something that carries over to many areas of endeavor. It's my job to steer it into socially acceptable patterns, not deny its expression.''

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