Cities crack down on New Year's Eve revelry

From celebratory gunshots to drunken driving and swelling crowds, behavior is getting closer scrutiny than ever.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Not so long ago, pots and pans and the occasional New Year's Eve firecracker blended with bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne in American neighborhoods.

But as the holiday grows in popularity and fanfare, celebratory gunfire and excessive drinking have increasingly become part of the evening's repertoire - leaving many to wonder whether it's safe to celebrate outside the home. Unpleasant post-party headlines are moving cities to crack down on risky behavior and raucous revelry in an effort to protect residents. Across America, cities and states are beefing up security, testing technologies, and trying new programs - all in preparation for Friday night's New Year's bash.

"During the holidays, people are much more relaxed and looking to enjoy themselves, so their guard is down," says Henry Brownstein, director of the Abt Associates Center on Crime, Drugs, and Justice in Cambridge, Mass. "I don't think they are more out of control than in the past. I think cities are simply becoming more vigilant in controlling them, especially since 9/11."

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Increased security, it seems, is here to stay - especially during the holidays.

In Texas, for instance, state parole officers will randomly call or drop in on parolees with drunken-driving records to make sure they stay home Friday night. Most have signed pledges promising they will not drive from Dec. 31 to Jan. 2.

"We are trying to change our strategy of supervision, especially during the holidays when there is often more reoffending going on," says Kathy Shallcross, deputy director of the parole division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

And it's not just New Year's Eve that's drawing more intense scrutiny and safety measures. The state parole division began heavy supervision of paroled pedophiles for the first time this Halloween. The idea behind these new initiatives, says Ms. Shallcross, is to give added attention to public safety during times when friends and family gather.

To that end, Dallas is experimenting this New Year's Eve with surveillance cameras mounted on private businesses at popular night spots.

The aim is to identify any crowd problems as they develop, using real-time video. Criminal activity, such as celebratory gunfire, can also be recorded. If successful, the technology may be installed in other parts of the city, says Dallas Assistant Police Chief Brian Harvey.

"This type of surveillance has been going on in convenience stores and office buildings for a long time now," he says. "What we are doing is expanding it into public areas."

Several cities have begun using gunfire-locating systems to pinpoint random shootings on New Year's Eve. Glendale, Ariz., for instance, had a severe problem with celebratory gunfire until it installed such a system. Recorded shots fell from 106 in 2003 to 39 in 2004.

Houston is going one step further Friday night by offering $5,000 for any tip leading to an arrest and charges for such a crime. It is the first time Crime Stoppers of Houston has offered reward money for a misdemeanor offense, which in Texas carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

But because celebratory gunfire often leads to injury or death, it can also be a felony crime with more severe punishments, says Kim Ogg, executive director of the city's Crime Stoppers.

The idea for the initiative came when police learned that several apartment managers and residents were afraid to stay in their homes on New Year's Eve because of the firearms problem, says Ms. Ogg.

The Houston Police Department "really had a problem with it last year, so we decided to sweeten the pie by adding the reward element," she says. "We want people to know that their chances of getting caught are better than they used to be."

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