Mayor vows thorough review of ‘Screen on the Green' security

Reed vowed the city will take "extraordinary steps to make sure that the security strategy for this event is adequate and fully-enforced."

In the meantime sponsors of the long-running summer film series have decided to postpone next Thursday's feature by one week, Peachtree TV said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

Sponsors Peachtree TV, City of Atlanta and the Piedmont Park Conservancy are "committed to continuing this summer tradition in the city's landmark park, and are working together to ensure that it remains a safe and fun family event," the statement said.

It was anything but that Thursday night, according to witnesses who said groups of marauding teens took over the event.

At a late-morning press conference, interim Police Chief George Turner said that the city requires that all special event organizers have a security plan in place that specifies the number of "personnel required for the event based on the information that is supplied in the application."

"While the Atlanta Police Department works in partnership with the event organizers and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, the security personnel are responsible for ensuring the city-approved plan is followed," Turner said.

But, he said that in the future on-duty Atlanta officers will monitor the event.

That might be counter-productive, concert promoter Alex Cooley told the AJC.

"Nothing against the police, but when you have a uniform navigating through a crowd of people that can cause problems," said Cooley, who promoted the Midtown Music Festival.

Cooley, who's promoted events and concerts at home and abroad, said Atlanta's security policy is routine.

"I've been doing large-scale events for 35 years and that's how it's always been," he said. Typically the promoter will contract with a private security force that provides "T-shirt security," Cooley said. "They marshal a force and try to diffuse the situation. If that doesn't work, they go to the off-duty cops who are usually stationed around the perimeter of the grounds.

"Maybe I've been lucky, but I've never experienced any major problems with security."

But some witnesses at Thursday's screening of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" said security was inadequate.

Ron Sweatland wrote the AJC in an early morning e-mail Friday that about 15 minutes into the movie, "everyone's attention was diverted to the back end of the event where a group fight was taking place.

"There seemed to be no police presence and after about 10 minutes of this brawl it broke up with a group of people running into the dark," Sweatland wrote.

Turner said approximately 10,000 people were in the park, with 23 off-duty officers providing security.

After the fracas – Turner said it started with girls fighting, followed by a group of boys scuffling – the movie was stopped and off-duty officers “dumped” the park.

“Then we got a call from off-duty and we responded with the blue lights,” Turner said, adding that one person has been arrested for an unrelated incident.  The chief said there was no evidence of gunfire at the event, as some had reported.

Police continue to look for suspects. An incident report was not available when requested Friday afternoon from Atlanta Police.

Turner said the movie drew a larger crowd than anticipated.

“They had a young – if you will – movie,” Turner said. “And they had more people than they anticipated. It was a lot younger crowd.”

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One movie-goer said free chicken sandwiches may had contributed to the brawl.

"It was an absolute mob scene, from the Chick-fil-A girls getting mobbed trying to hand out free sandwiches to the complete lack of respect for the people watching the movie," said Marc Freund.

"After enduring the first 30 minutes of the movie with people walking around and screaming, we decided to leave," Freund told the AJC.

Midtown resident Jeff Keesee said there were "gangs of kids roaming the aisles, doing stunts to get crowd reactions. People just standing around talking, yelling -- disrespect, rudeness, unruliness -- a total disaster."

Sweatland wrote that as his group headed to their cars, he saw a group of "high school-aged kids" throwing rocks at passing vehicles. One of the rocks "completely shattered the back window" of one of the cars, he said.

He said many of the children in the crowd were "scared and crying."

"I can remember a time when Screen on the Green was great family fun and we always looked forward to going," he wrote. "I think this will be our last time going and our friends agree that they will no longer go either."

"Up until the drought, I never missed a Screen on the Green in Piedmont Park," Keesee told the AJC. "I was so excited it was allowed back in. After tonight's debacle, I will work tirelessly to have it shut down unless something is done to improve crowd control."

Keesee said he didn't see a single police officer as the situation got "completely out of control."

Josh Hice, 26, of Newnan, was driving by Piedmont Park Thursday night with a friend when he said he was attacked by a group of high school-age people.

"There was a car stopped in front of me and a car stopped behind me, and there was this crowd of about 30 high school kids parading down the street," said Hice, who was driving an open-top Jeep.

First, a girl came up and spat in his face, Hice said, then he was punched in the face by another teen.

"It split my lip, then they start climbing all over my Jeep, and I turn around and my buddy is getting punched in the face and has blood pouring out of his nose," Hice said. "It was ridiculous. We were definitely victims of a hate crime."

Traffic ahead of Hice finally moved "and I just peeled out of there. I peeled out even with one of the dudes still hanging on the back of the Jeep, and he just jumped off."

"I felt like I was in another country," Hice said.

Atlanta City councilman Alex Wan, who represents the area that includes Piedmont Park, said the incident was “not the norm,” and was “caused by a small group of young kids looking to cause trouble.”

“Unfortunately, we just came off a hugely successful Jazz Festival, where we had more people and we had no incidents at all,” Wan said. “I am hoping this is a one-time incident. I hope we can make a few adjustments and come back to having great events in the part of town, because it is so popular with the neighborhood and the city.”

The weekly movie series began on May 27 and is scheduled to continue on Thursday nights through June 24.

"It would be a real shame if this put and end to it," Cooley said. "This is the city putting on an event that's trying to make Atlanta a better place to live."

-- Photographer John Spink contributed to this article.

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