Tents, cornhole game boards, grills and debris lifted off the ground and went flying across the grassy tailgating fields outside of Beaver Stadium Saturday as a state police helicopter flew closely overhead, according to multiple videos published on social media ahead of the Penn State football game with Ohio State.
Penn State Police and Public Safety and Pennsylvania State Police both said that the helicopter was used to disperse a “large-scale party that was getting out of hand” and not listening to commands to leave the area.
Trooper David McGarvey, a spokesman for Troop G, said one trooper was injured and two state police horses were assaulted in the crowd.
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Scott Olson, of Hagerstown, Md., was tailgating at Yellow Lot 23, next to where the large party was happening. He said about 200-300 people were partying at what he described as a senior event for a fraternity, but that his tailgate was unbothered.
“To be honest, we were next to them and it didn’t seem that crazy. It didn’t affect our side at all, but I guess some folks on the other side of the aisle had some issues with them, and they complained to police,” Olson said. “But regardless of that, the big issue frankly was the helicopter.”
According to Olson, the low-flying helicopter sent tents and food flying, while people screamed and ran around, ducking for cover. One tent, he said, even scratched his vehicle.
“Can you imagine if one of the tents got sucked into the propeller and the helicopter went down? It could’ve been a major tragedy,” Olson said.
According to the statement from McGarvey on behalf of PSP, police were initially called to the scene to assist with he said was a crowd creating a risk to persons and property. When tailgaters ignored commands to disperse from officers on the ground, PSP deployed personnel, including the Pennsylvania State Police Tactical Mounted Unit. That’s when, he said, the crowd turned unruly and the horses and officer were injured. Ground units pulled back in an effort to deescalate the situation, and the Activation Unit was called to assist.
“A helicopter was utilized to issue commands to disperse via loudspeaker. When personnel on scene noticed the helicopter was low enough to disturb items on the ground, the helicopter pulled up to a higher altitude,” McGarvey said. “The PSP Tactical Mounted Unit and the Aviation Section routinely provide assistance at events like this when large crowds are expected.”
Olson said he thinks the situation could have been avoided with better communication from police. He said about eight officers on horseback and 15-20 others came toward the end, but he didn’t see any officers before then.
“If police would’ve gone and checked with these guys during the course of the day and maybe said, ‘Who’s in charge? We wanted to let you know we’ll be checking to make sure things are under control and hold you guys responsible.’ But I don’t think there were any check-ins until the end of the day,” he said. “And at that point it was a party with 200-300 people.”
Penn State Public Safety and Police also responded to concerns, saying that officers were responding to circumstances on the ground, which involved numerous law violations, including serious threats to officer safety with a disorderly crowd.
“It is rare to resort to these expanded interventions; however, when all other warnings from the mounted police unit and officers on the ground were ignored, a state police helicopter was deployed as another tool to compel the group to disperse and curb dangerous and unruly behavior,” the statement read. “Following the use of the helicopter, the dangerous behaviors dissipated.”
Olson said that in addition to the hazards that could have been caused by debris flying through the air and the potential for it to affect the helicopter, he also had concerns about the horses getting spooked and possibly injuring someone.
“I’m a huge supporter of the police. They have a very difficult job and I understand it’s hard to do what they’ve got to do, I totally get it,” he said. “But I just think that they made a mistake with the helicopter.”
Olson’s son is a junior at Penn State, and this is Olson’s third year tailgating at football games.
“Frankly, as parents of kids over there, we never want to see a low-flying helicopter again. It’s just too dangerous,” he said.
State police said in a release on Saturday that when the party was dispersed, $200, four 30-packs of beer and eight handles of alcohol were seized. In addition, six minors younger than 21 were charged with underage violations. Criminal charges for selling alcohol without a license and furnishing alcohol to minors are pending.
Olson said he did report the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration. A representative from the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Harrisburg confirmed to the Centre Daily Times that the incident at the tailgate is under investigation.