Private security patrols help keep West Chester weekend nights civil

Posted: February 04, 2013

Jeff Stein walked up amiably to a group of college-age men carrying a pizza and laughing uproariously as they made their way Friday night down West Chester's South Walnut Street.

"Hey, guys - try to keep it down, all right?" he said.

The men nodded, chastened. "Thanks for the warning, officer," one young man said, smiling.

Stein isn't a police officer, but for residents of downtown West Chester, he's the next best thing. The owner of local private security firm ELPS Detective Agency, Stein has been contracted by the borough to provide additional security on weekend nights along its busiest streets - in other words, the route between the bars and the campus of West Chester University.

As party schools go, West Chester isn't exactly Penn State, but it's no Brigham Young University either. Last year, residents of South Walnut Street - a well-lighted avenue populated by locals and students - began complaining that the noise from parties and students returning from bars made sleeping difficult on weekends.

Finding it too expensive to hire an extra police detail essentially to remind students to quiet down, the borough chose a middle ground: hiring the private security company to patrol Walnut Street and surrounding areas on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Funded through a grant from the West Chester University Foundation, a nonprofit separate from the school whose mission is to advance the university's interests, the program is now in its third semester.

"We're aware of town-gown issues that come up, and, clearly, student behavior in any capacity is one we pay attention to, as well," said Rich Przywara, the foundation's executive director. "Someone suggested, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could augment the police force in some way?' The foundation stepped forward and said we could really contribute to that. The town just doesn't have the money."

Przywara said the university had been happy with the results thus far: "Dr. Greg Weisenstein [the university president] is very concerned about neighborhood relations, and he's very pleased that's he's able to broker this with the borough."

The program costs about $30,000 a year, and a recent neighborhood survey returned positive feedback, said Jordan Norley, who chairs the borough public-safety committee.

Private security patrols are just one facet of a larger effort to police the borough on weekends, Norley said: The Borough Council is working to approve a plan to install 240 "Quiet Zone" signs and has increased minimum noise-violation fines from $100 to $250.

"Residents . . . certainly feel better just to know there's somebody out there giving eyes and ears and doing what they can," he said.

Norley estimated ELPS prevented 25 to 35 fights in its trial run last year.

On a typical weekend with classes in session, four security guards in teams of two make the rounds along Walnut, Matlack, and High Streets from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Norley said the unarmed guards were not allowed to make arrests or write citations, and they contact West Chester police when they spot situations that call for intervention.

On Friday night, Stein and his guards passed euphoric college-age groups, several loud parties, and lines out the door at pizza joints - all in all, a fairly quiet evening.

Stein and his partner called police twice: to alert officers to a driver who seemed visibly intoxicated and whose passenger was vomiting, and when a young man kept climbing onto the roof of a property on Walnut Street.

In general, Stein said, the guards control unruly revelers with verbal commands and bright flashlights. They generally warn students to keep their voices down and try to keep an eye on students walking alone.

Revelers aren't necessarily students at the university - some come from other schools, and some are simply college age, Przywara said - but the foundation is happy to finance the extra eyes on the street.

"The finger gets pointed at the university for anyone who in the least bit looks young," he said. "Part of my perspective is I'm controlling a problem I don't really own, but that's fine."


Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.

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