Law Enforcement

Inside Boulder Hill Party Gone Terribly Wrong

A screen capture from one of many videos of the March 6 party on Boulder's Hill that are currently circulating on social media.
A screen capture from one of many videos of the March 6 party on Boulder's Hill that are currently circulating on social media. YouTube
On March 7, authorities in Boulder held a virtual press conference to outline how a party the previous day in the Hill neighborhood managed to spin so far out of control. At least three SWAT officers were injured and multiple vehicles were damaged, including one turned over by members of the throng.

Included in the information shared by officials was a timeline of events, which appear to have started merely as a way to blow off steam on a beautiful Colorado day, pandemic be damned. But there was also plenty of tough talk about planned prosecution and even some ass-covering for mistakes made along the way — such as the University of Colorado Boulder (which returned to in-person learning on February 15) sending out an alert early in the melee with the subject line "RUN HIDE FIGHT."

By night's end, social media was filled with images of wanton destruction, including the car-flipping, as seen in the following Twitter video.
This isn't the first time something like this has happened in Boulder since the rise of the novel coronavirus; last May, this video of a physical distancing-free bacchanal at Boulder Creek went viral. (Yes, COVID cases in Boulder spiked shortly thereafter.) But it makes previous episodes seem modest by comparison.

The first hint of the trouble to come arrived at approximately 1:30 p.m., when Boulder Police Code Enforcement "began responding to residences on 12th and 13th streets for reports of parties being held and issued warnings for violations of the public health order," the official account begins. "These individuals were receptive to the notices and separate from the disturbance that occurred later Saturday evening."

Matters took a turn just before 5 p.m., when "Boulder Police Dispatch began receiving calls about a large party on 10th Street between Pennsylvania and College. Officers from BPD’s Neighborhood Impact Team, which regularly patrols that neighborhood, responded to the area and attempted to disperse the gathering."

It didn't work. By 5:40 p.m., "the crowd swelled and individuals began pelting the officers with glass bottles," triggering a call to the Boulder SWAT team.

Things seemed to calm down for a while after that — but any sense that things were coming under control proved illusory. The "RUN HIDE FIGHT" alert went out at 8:01 p.m., and by 8:22 p.m., Boulder SWAT was back in the area, joined by squads from Boulder County, Longmont and the Colorado State Patrol. Twenty minutes later, at 8:42 p.m., reports about large groups of students moving back toward campus arrived at around the time that officers in armored vehicles began getting pelted with rocks and bottles.

Officers responded by firing pepper balls (all are said to have been aimed at the ground as a safety measure) and also launched three canisters: two that smoked, and a third that spewed tear gas. But Boulder officials contend that "due to a change in wind direction, the effects of the gas on the crowd were greatly diminished."

At that point, the number of ragers on hand was estimated at between 500 and 800, prompting the decision "to pull the officers out of the immediate area and observe crowd actions," the city's account continues. Shortly thereafter, the windshield of one vehicle was shattered.

Here are photos of damage shared by the city.

click to enlarge Images of damage from the party shared by the City of Boulder. - BOULDERCOLORADO.GOV
Images of damage from the party shared by the City of Boulder.
As all of this was going on, officers used "a toned warble noise from the Long Range Acoustical Device to clear the crowd from in front of the vehicle in order to leave the area."

The party-goers finally began to disperse between 8:45 and 9 p.m., the city estimates, with CU Boulder sending a second alert at 9:13 p.m. "asking individuals to avoid the Hill area until further notice due to the disturbance," according to the account, "saying people in the area could be subject to arrest and CU sanctions."

In the wake of the madness, Boulder set up an online form to submit photos and videos of participants that might be used to identify them, and Michael Dougherty, the Boulder district attorney, issued a statement making it clear that he's not going to shrug off what went down.

"Our community was put at the individuals involved in the incident in the Hill area," he pronounced. "Their callous disregard for our community’s safety and well-being is shameful. There is no excuse for this conduct, especially while the people of this community endure the pandemic. The District Attorney’s Office will work closely with the Boulder Police Department to determine the identities of the people who damaged private property and assaulted first responders, because they should be held fully responsible for their outrageous actions.”

The City of Boulder's response included similar language: "The City of Boulder condemns the behavior of those who organized and attended the party and will seek the strictest consequences — legal, economic and when relevant, academic — for anyone who engaged in violence or destruction of property. We are grateful that the injured officers are recovering and that no one else was hurt in this dangerous situation."

This tone was prevalent during the March 7 press conference, seen below:

Among the themes underscored during that briefing was the potential risk of a COVID-19 spike.

Boulder County Public Health Executive Director Jeff Zayach put it this way: "The videos from the party...are shocking and disturbing, especially considering Governor Polis had just mourned the nearly 6,000 people that died in the last year with COVID in Colorado. This disregard of mask wearing, disregard of social distancing, and disregard on limits on personal social gatherings clearly in violation of the orders from the state is unacceptable. And none of us want to see violence toward personal property and first responders."

Zayach added: "We know there are many students here that have been doing the right thing and following public health requirements. The individuals who participated in this activity last night negatively impact all the students at CU, our businesses, and our communities. This behavior put our businesses, our community, and individuals at risk, and threatens the safe opening of the University to in-person learning. I feel for the residents living on the Hill that had to go through this traumatic event, and for the students who condemn this activity. We need to remember that the majority of students are not doing this and need to assure that students are not all lumped into this same group."

University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy issued a statement noting that "we will do all we can to hold CU students...accountable," but didn't specify what that would mean.  There will be substantial costs if CU Boulder decides to expel everyone found to have been present at the bash, particularly if they're paying pricey out-of-state tuition.

Then again, the images from March 6 are much worse than those of the 420 gatherings on the CU campus a decade ago — so-called orgasms of cannabis consumption that the university spent hundreds of thousands to quash over a series of several years. Suddenly, the idea of a mob that was high and blissful, as opposed to drunk and belligerent, doesn't seem so bad.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts