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Students blame police after drunken fires

By Rosie Manins of the Otago Daily Times

Remains of a furniture fire as Police clear Castle Street of party goers after a large crowd gathered and lit several fires on Saturday night. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Remains of a furniture fire as Police clear Castle Street of party goers after a large crowd gathered and lit several fires on Saturday night. Photo / Otago Daily Times

Drunk university students who set couches alight after being turfed out of parties are blaming police for inflaming tensions.

But police say there is no excuse for drunken disorder and warn furniture fires are putting people at risk.

At least one private Castle St party was shut down by a Dunedin City Council noise control officer about 10pm, forcing people out of the flat, on to the street.

About 300 people had gathered on the street by 11pm, when four Dunedin firefighters arrived to extinguish two couch fires.

The size of the crowd prompted them to call for a back-up, plus police attendance.

In total, firefighters extinguished seven furniture fires in the student area on Saturday night.

More than a dozen police officers, including a dog handler and two paddy wagon crews, arrived in Castle St to disperse the crowd about midnight.

About 10 officers formed a line and marched people down Howe and Castle Sts, while others blocked alternative exits.

An "idiot" threw a bottle at a firefighter, but otherwise people were co-operative, Acting Senior Sergeant Ed Baker said. No arrests were made.

There had been private parties in the area and people were gathered on the street "waiting for something to happen", he said.

It took some time for police resources to be collated and when officers arrived at midnight the crowd was down to about 100.

It was "just another Saturday night in Castle St", he said.

The Otago Daily Times yesterday spoke to about 20 Castle St residents, mostly second-year University of Otago students.

Almost all said couch fires and street disorder was the result of private parties being shut down and people forced out of flats.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do, they looked for furniture to burn and often felt resentment towards authorities for closing parties.

If people were allowed to stay in flats they would not venture en masse into the street and disorder would be curtailed, the students said.

They felt police were being more heavy-handed, shutting down parties earlier and responding with more force to incidents.

"Cops never used to shut down a house party at 11pm. When they do, that's when it ends up going bad because everyone moves on to the street," a second-year student said.

He felt safer drinking in the student quarter, where everyone was a "friend of a friend" than in central Dunedin with strangers.

Another second-year student said she thought Saturday night was "mellow" and at no point got out of hand.

She and her flatmates hosted a party before Orientation, which went until 4am, and because people were not forced into the street there was no disorder.

However, Mr Baker said there was "no excuse for disorder on the street".

"If students can keep their activities to within their properties, without interfering on the rights of other people living nearby, and without lighting fires which endanger properties, then there is no issue."

On most occasions, police warned party hosts before shutting down events, and nine out of 10 complaints to police about out-of-control parties were by the hosts themselves, he said.

"I don't think what happened on Saturday was a result of parties being closed down. It was an orderly dispersal of a crowd; there were no batons or force used."

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said if people's behaviour on private property was excessive and had to be curtailed, it made no sense for them to assume such behaviour in public was acceptable.

Parties were shut down for a reason and students had the same rights - and responsibilities - as other residents, he said.

"They have to respect the community in which they live."

Willowbank Senior Station Officer Grant Clarkson said when firefighters attended incidents where there was a large crowd, police were usually called as a precaution.

"You just can't tell which way it's going to go these days. It only takes one person to act like an idiot. There's always a bit of worry and pressure on you, so you just try to cover your back as best as you can."

- Additional reporting Eileen Goodwin

- Otago Daily Times

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