LEWISTON — Police Chief Michael Bussiere disputed claims of excessive force in the early-morning arrest of 11 Bates College students Wednesday, saying the incident began with seniors visiting their old first-year dorm on campus just before midnight.
The group — which grew to as many as 300 people — blocked an ambulance called to Smith Hall and events escalated from there, with an officer breaking his leg in two places during a scuffle and students refusing to leave the area, then resisting arrest and yelling taunts, Bussiere said Wednesday.
“While I know some of the students are upset they got arrested last night, and I know some of them are upset their friends got arrested last night, I think it’s important for them to realize Bates College security and the Lewiston Police Department are here to protect them and, sometimes, to protect them from themselves,” Bussiere said.
“I think, obviously, alcohol played a role in this," he said. "Excessive alcohol.”
One first-year student, two sophomores, two juniors and six seniors were charged with failure to disperse. Eight face additional charges. Senior Samuel Guilford of Surry was charged with aggravated assault after he and Sgt. Robert Ullrich fell while Guilford was resisting arrest, Bussiere said. Ullrich broke his leg in two places and tore ligaments.
A second officer who Bussiere declined to identify suffered minor injuries and was already back on the job.
All 11 students were freed on bail before 9 a.m., according to Androscoggin County Jail Capt. John Lebel. They were given July court dates.
Bussiere said he wasn’t aware of any students getting seriously hurt in the melee, but in her news release, Bates College President Elaine Tuttle Hansen said that “a small number of Bates students were also treated for injuries.”
She said she was “deeply concerned” about the incident and that an internal investigation had been launched.
Bussiere said the night’s problems began when Bates security staff tried to clear a crowd on Bardwell Street in front of Smith Hall to make way for an ambulance. United Ambulance had been called to campus for two women who needed medical attention, possibly because of alcohol use.
Rescue workers had a difficult time pulling the ambulance up to the dorm and a difficult time leaving, the chief said.
United Ambulance Executive Director Paul Gosselin said that, after talking with staff, “I’m not sure if (students) were blocking it or there were just 300 people there and there was no room for them to go.”
When the ambulance turned on its lights to leave, no one moved. Next came sirens, which parted the crowd. It’s difficult to say how long the ambulance was held up, Gosselin said. The delay “wasn’t 20 minutes and it wasn’t 10 seconds.”
After 10 minutes of trying to clear the street and multiple warnings to leave, Bates security called Lewiston police for help at 11:57 p.m.
“Some people did disperse," Bussiere said. "At least 100, 150 refused to do so and several became confrontational with police, telling them it was private property and they didn’t have the right to be there."
Roughly 10 to 15 minutes after Lewiston police arrived, other departments were called for backup. Bussiere estimated there were at most 25 police and security personnel on the scene, outnumbered 10 to 1 by students.
After failing to break up even after Lewiston police got on loud speakers, the most confrontational students were arrested, he said. “A lot of folks got arrested for jumping in and trying to keep their friends from being arrested.”
He said he didn’t believe excessive force was used, noting that none of his officers used Tasers but some used pepper spray. After initially saying that no officer had used a baton, Bussiere said he got an in-house report that one officer had either used or displayed a baton.
As for student complaints that people being arrested weren’t read their rights, Bussiere said that fit procedure.
“At the scene of a fracas like this, they’re not going to take out their cards and read their Miranda rights because they’re not questioning them," Bussiere said. "Students watch TV like everyone else; in reality that’s not how it works. Some of the terminology they used, I’m not going to repeat it. It was, ‘"Blank" the police.’”
Tom Carey, Bates director of security, said the college hadn’t sanctioned the wandering senior party. He said more than 1,000 students on campus weren’t involved.
Most times, if a crowd gathers and people are asked to leave, “The students listen to the officers and it’s over in two minutes,” Carey said. “This is truly an aberration and something you see every 20, 30 years.”
By the time he arrived around 1 a.m., things were under control, he said. None of his personnel used batons or pepper spray on students.
“As a college community, Bates has enjoyed a long history of respect between our campus and local law enforcement,” Tuttle Hansen said in her release. “This incident is highly unusual for Bates, where the college’s values are clearly grounded in personal responsibility and respect for others.”
Bates College will hold its commencement Sunday. Spokesman Bryan McNulty said it was yet to be determined whether any of the seniors charged would be stopped from marching.
Bussiere said Ullrich would be out on leave for several months. When the swelling in his leg comes down, he’ll need surgery to insert pins.
“The kind of ironic thing about Sgt. Ullrich being injured, prior to him being promoted sergeant, he was the regional alcohol investigator and worked closely with Bates College,” Bussiere said.
Ullrich was 2009's law enforcement officer of the year for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.