It was just minutes after closing time early Sunday on the South Side when the first fists began to fly.
A series of spontaneous fights erupted along East Carson Street near 18th Street among a few drunken combatants who were freshly booted from the bars that line the thoroughfare. Shouting revelers flooded the sidewalk around them, some capturing video of the ruckus on their cell phones.
The growing crowds lingered, even after five city police vehicles swarmed the intersection. So the officers tried a different approach: They turned on their sirens and waited.
The carousers covered their ears and darted away with little resistance, leaving only a handful of stragglers wandering the street an hour later. The curious ones paused only to ask the officers what crime had occurred to draw them there.
The tactic was a new attempt to combat the perennial problem of crowd control on the South Side, where dozens of bars and nightclubs share the same 2 a.m. closing time. Thousands of people spill onto the streets, where police say their loitering leads to countless other problems, from brawls and shootings to loud noise and public urination. Cars cruise outside the nightclubs and make East Carson Street, at times, almost impenetrable.
Earlier this year, police began staggering the traffic lights with the goal of clearing the street faster. But with more and more bar goers flocking to South Side nightclubs, the problem, police say, persists.
"The South Side is the worst I have seen it in 19 years," said Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, who has been telling officers to temporarily block vehicular traffic at several intersections of East Carson Street. Among them are 19th, 18th and 12th streets, outside the bars where the largest crowds form. When the crowds fail to depart, the officers sound their sirens, sometimes for several minutes. After about two minutes of wailing, the group at 18th Street dispersed. Cars were forced to leave via side streets.
"We do our best to have everything clear in one hour and 10 minutes," the sergeant said. "It's effective. They see police cars and lights and their first thought is, 'Let's get out of here.' "
About 3:10 a.m. Sunday, after the after-hours Caravan Social Club near 11th Street had cleared, the sergeant radioed that their work, at least for the time being, was done.
Sgt. Matakovich, who supervises the overnight shift in the city's Zone 3 station in Allentown, said he took the approach from his days heading the since-dissolved Street Response Unit, whose uniformed officers aggressively targeted problems in the city's high-crime areas.
"What we're doing right now is proactive," he said, likening the sirens to the LRAD, the sophisticated speaker system that can blast a clear, recorded dispersal order and can be heard up to a quarter-mile away. A few people who teetered out of the Caravan Club stopped to inquire about the police presence, but most sauntered wordlessly into the night.
"Our rationale and our goal here is not to discourage people from going to after-hours clubs," Sgt. Matakovich said. "Our rationale is to provide a safe atmosphere for people who go to those clubs."
Zone 3 Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly said swelling crowds on recent weekends mean the need for new strategies. She is concerned the method keeps on-duty police manpower from promptly answering calls in the zone's other neighborhoods. On some summer nights, she said, the zone has just eight or nine vehicles to answer calls; Sgt. Matakovich said he usually requires four or five for crowd-clearing. He asked the county's emergency operations center to hold "non-priority calls" during the hour they spend on East Carson, which means calls for non-life-threatening issues such as parking complaints and disputes among neighbors can go unanswered until officers are done on East Carson.
Some officers worry the tactic will leave those patrolling other neighborhoods without quick backup in the event of violence in another part of the district. Sgt. Matakovich said he is notified of serious calls between 2 and 3 a.m. and sends officers to them when needed.
The commander wants a plan that would task off-duty officers, who moonlight as security guards at many of the South Side bars, with handling crowd control.
Many of those who live around East Carson Street and regularly awaken to the stench of urine, uprooted flowers, screaming partiers, strewn trash and the occasional broken window said they appreciate any effort to fight lawlessness. Their concerns grew after an unidentified 24-year-old man was shot in the back inside District 3, a nightclub in the 2000 block of East Carson, early Saturday morning. Detectives continue to investigate that incident.
Eric Costello, 33, who has lived on 19th Street for more than six years, said the siren noise rustles him and his 9-month-old son, but so do the unruly revelers.
"It's almost like an air-raid siren," he said. "It's disruptive, but not as disruptive as hearing someone sitting on your porch. Living here and being inside on [weekend] nights, it's almost like you're a prisoner. I'll take the sirens if that's what it takes."
Councilman Bruce Kraus, who has long sought a cure for problems on the South Side and who observed Sgt. Matakovich's crowd-clearing efforts early Sunday, said it "looks like it's rather effective." Yet, he added, sweeping changes are needed to target the root of the neighborhood's problems.
"I can't say that I disagree with it," said Mike Willis, marketing director for Levelz in the 1800 block of East Carson, near where officers converged Sunday morning. "If you are trying to make a neighborhood that is clearly an entertainment district safe, I don't see what else you can do."
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. First Published June 18, 2012 4:00 AM