Was Black Friday too crowded?

By Katherine Wartell

Did Black Friday hordes at several area retailers violate local crowding ordinances?

Officials with the Manhattan Fire Department and the Riley County Police Department say they received no complaints while the actual shopping took place. But others, including Mayor Loren Pepperd, acknowledge they at least received such complaints.

Manhattan’s overcrowding ordinance as it stands states, “It shall be unlawful to allow the overcrowding or admittance of any person beyond the approved capacity of a building.” The ordinance empowers the fire code official or a Riley County Police Department officer “upon finding any overcrowding conditions or obstructions in aisles, passageways or other means of egress, or upon finding any condition which constitutes a life safety hazard,” to “cause the event to be stopped, the business operation to cease, and/or the building or portion thereof to be closed to the public, until such condition or obstruction is corrected.”

City commissioners rewrote the ordinance prior to Fake Patty’s Day last February, granting Riley County police officers the power to write overcrowding citations, an authority previously only granted to the fire department.

Representatives of both departments said no calls were received by dispatch complaining about overcrowding at retailers either Thanksgiving night or Friday morning. During that time, Patrol Capt. Tim Hegarty said officers regularly checked in with the big box stores in town, though he said Wal-Mart and Menards had private security.

RCPD Director Brad Schoen said complaints received by him did not come in until after the event, and Schoen said he dealt with them personally.

He said that if the department had received complaints during Black Friday shopping, they most likely would have been forwarded to the fire department, whose officers he said have better training in the matter.

Pepperd said he received three complaints about overcrowding, but he said he did not forward them on to the police department because they did not deal with safety issues such as fighting or rough behavior.

Pepperd compared the issue to fireworks, saying crowds are to be expected on Black Friday.

Lee Overley, manager of Staples, was one of those who contacted Schoen. Overley said the ordinance itself is poorly written and needs to be re-addressed. “We created this and haven’t really thought it through,” he said, specifying the inclusion of “obstructions in aisles, passageways or other means of egress,” in the ordinance. He said that clearly happens on Black Friday.

There were no indications which specific stores might have been overcrowded during what has become a traditional shopping rush.

Overley said he does not want to see a store shut down for overcrowding, but believes a store cannot be abiding by the ordinance if vehicles in their parking lot are overflowing onto other lots. He suggested he witnessed that phenomenon.

Ryan Almes, deputy chief of the Manhattan Fire Department, said occupancy loads for the big box stores in town are substantial. At Wal-Mart, the load is 5,892, while the load at Target is 3,568 and the load at Best Buy is 896.

“Six-thousand people is a lot of people,” Almes said, adding that the department does not discriminate on occupancy loads.

Almes said that in past years, the department has sent out letters reminding store managers of their duty to maintain occupancy loads. But he added it is very difficult to reach that level of customers in the store at one time.

He said the department does not perform routine checks during Black Friday, unless complaints are received.

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