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The city insists on having more officers to keep a lid on festivities at O'Keefe's this year.
By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Ask Clearwater police Sgt. Joe Young about last year's St. Patrick's Day celebration at O'Keefe's in Clearwater, and he offers an immediate and telling response.
"Oh, God," he says.
He recalls last year's party, where a breakdown in communication with the fire marshal allowed the event to fill to over capacity. There were so many people jammed under tents outside that there weren't enough officers to break up all the fights at closing time.
"It was out of control to say the least," recalled Young. "It was wall to wall people. They were well over capacity."
Which is why city officials met with O'Keefe's managers after the party and required them to hire more police officers to keep things under control this year.
The parties this Friday will be staffed by five officers, and about 15 officers will patrol on Saturday afternoon and night -- a total of about 50 percent more officers than last year. Two officials from the Fire Department also will be present to monitor capacity levels and ensure they meet fire codes.
The owners of O'Keefe's claim their St. Patrick's Day party is the largest of its kind in the state, attracting as many as 9,000 people during its Friday to Saturday run. The event is held under 20,000-square-foot tents in which plenty of green beer and corned beef (5,000 pounds of it) are served.
The party has been a tradition for 20 years, but owner Tony Duquesnay says every year he considers calling it quits because he thinks the city picks on him.
"The city gives us a lot of restrictions, more and more every year," he said.
Duquesnay said last year's crowd was the biggest ever. "I'm hoping this year will be even bigger."
But he said the crowd is good-natured.
"We've never had any problems here," he said. "People are drunk. We have a lot of drunks. But people are real happy drunks, and nobody's fighting each other. It's remarkable that with so many people in the place, we have so few problems."
But police paint a different picture.
Drunk pedestrians sometimes walk in front of traffic and get hit. Police said a bartender was the victim of a strong-arm robbery last year.
"It was just so bad last year," Young said.
And the worst comes at closing time, when people are told the party is over. When fights broke out at closing last year, officers couldn't get to them all, police said. Officers arrested five people and ejected nine others at closing on St. Patrick's Day last year, Young said.
"There's always the rowdy crowd and the fights afterward and during," Young said. "At closing, it gets ugly."
Young said he thinks the owners appeared willing to work with the city during meetings about how to make the event safe.
But Duquesnay said the city is asking too much.
"I think it's too many," he said of the additional off-duty officersand added that he will spend about $4,000 this year on off-duty officers and fire officials. "I'm paying fire marshals to tell me that I can't let anyone onto the premises. That don't make sense, does it?," he said.
"But if I bellyache too much, they won't give me a permit next year," he said. "I have to be a nice boy."
Duquesnay said he rents about 40 portable toilets in hopes people will not urinate in public. He said taxis line up at the pub, which encourages people not to drink and drive. He said if people decide to urinate on the curb or act unruly walking to their cars, that's something he can't control.
But police Chief Sid Klein said the event has ballooned to the point that it has outgrown its current location. He said police will ensure the event remains safe.
"I want strict enforcement out there. We're not playing games this year," Klein said. "If anybody breaks the law, they're going to jail."