At Kansas Music Festival, Security Hopes for the Best

Festival that blends concerts and camping for 15,000 presents unique security challenges


Jun. 7--LAWRENCE | - LAWRENCE | The crowds at the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival have grown. So, too, has the police presence.

The number of law enforcement officers at the four-day event, which kicks off Thursday outside Lawrence, will be roughly double that of last year. Police expect to have their hands full with traffic accidents, drug and alcohol violations, and -- thanks to a hot forecast -- heat stroke and dehydration.

The festival at Clinton Lake will feature nearly 150 diverse bands on multiple stages. Many attendees will stay in campsites surrounding the venue. Gates open today for early arrivals and close Monday. Tickets were sold in all 50 states and as far away as Japan and Germany. About 15,000 people are expected to attend.

"It's the size of a small city," said Lt. Kari Wempe of the Douglas County sheriff's office.

The sheriff's office will have five to 19 deputies at the event at any given time, compared with three to 11 per shift last year. The Kansas Highway Patrol, which has never staffed Wakarusa before, will have 17 officers at the event. Ambulances and emergency medical technicians also will be on call.

A 29-year old Florida man died of a drug overdose at last year's festival, another man went missing for days, and a few dozen citations were issued for drug and alcohol violations. That's par for the course for large musical festivals like Wakarusa, but it still was cause for concern for festival organizers.

The overdose death "was a very sobering event," Wakarusa organizer Brett Mosiman said. Mosiman prefers to call police "security," but he acknowledged that music festivals can attract some of the worst legacies of the flower-power era.

Wempe said deputies will be on the lookout for drugs, though she said heat-related illness, lost children, vehicle accidents, injuries, fights and minor crimes also are possibilities.

Wakarusa, now in its third year, has gone from being a regional event that failed to turn a profit to one of the country's biggest music festivals. With the crowds come problems for public safety officials.

For officials in Northern California, it's the High Sierra Music Festival, a four-day annual event that starts in late June in Plumas County, 80 miles from Reno, Nev. Sheriff Terry Bergstrand said he has learned some hard lessons from the festival, now in its 16th year, which attracts about 10,000 fans.

"It puts a lot of stress and strain on law enforcement," he said. "The biggest problem is the influx of drugs. But then there's medical problems, fights, thefts, traffic accidents, destruction of property and everything else."

Wakarusa's organizers will pay $53,000 to compensate Douglas County for the work of law enforcement. Mosiman said he wants Wakarusa to remain family-friendly and safe for all.

Some of those traveling to Wakarusa say the relatively peaceful, safe atmosphere is one reason Wakarusa compares favorably to larger festivals such as the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, set for later this month in Manchester, Tenn.

"It's much more intimate, and the people are very friendly and positive," said Brian Melamed, a college student from Urbana, Ill., who is coming to Wakarusa. "It's a great environment to hear great music."

Mosiman had a few words of advice for those coming to Wakarusa. First, don't bring anything illegal. Second, stay hydrated.

"It's going to be hot, so drink lots of water," he said. "Wear a lot of sunscreen and a hat. And have a good time."

(Kansas City Star (MO) (KRT) -- 06/08/06)