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Operation: River Watch

Keeping you safe downtown

Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 12:03

Last February, the death of Western Technical College student Craig Meyers brought UW-La Crosse and WTC into a state of mourning. Hundreds of students attended a remembrance ceremony the day his body was pulled from the Mississippi River, sharing what they'd miss about a beloved friend and classmate.

As many students know, Craig wasn't the first to tragically drown within the Mississippi River. Since 1997, eight young men died in similar drownings. Craig Meyers was the ninth, but with extra efforts from Operation: River Watch, hopefully he will be the last.

Operation: River Watch is a safety initiative that started after a 2006 drowning. The program is truly a community effort. It was created by UW-L's Sigma Tau Gamma Fraternity and Student Association, Viterbo University, WWT and the La Crosse Police Department in hopes of preventing future tragedies.

When the initiative began, two volunteers from UW-L, Viterbo or WTC patrolled Riverside Park from 11 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. on Thursdays and from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But after the death of Craig Meyers, the organization felt that improvements needed to be made. They looked into expanding the time the park was patrolled by a half hour, meaning that volunteers would stand watch until 3 a.m. on Thursdays and 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

These changes have not yet been put into effect. But this isn't stopping the Operation: River Watch program from setting out to what it meant to do, which is save lives.

"At least 50 close calls have been acted upon by River Watch staff," said University Police Chief Scott Rohde, "Some of these people actually were in the water."

Rohde credits the success of Operation: River Watch to the volunteers physically surveiling the area, saying that any type of mechanical barrier would not be as effective.

"Binge drinking continues to be a serious problem in La Crosse," Rohde said, "and this program is effective because it puts a dedicated set of eyes at the riverfront and provides for an immediate response during critical times of the night. I think the program is very important and without it more tragedies would likely have occurred."

While originally students made up for a majority of the volunteers, Rohde said student involvement is declining. This leaves many hours to be covered by the La Crosse Police reserve unit.

If students want to keep their friends and classmates safe, student involvement needs to go back up. Volunteering can be thought of as taking a turn as the designated driver. It may seem boring and unnecessary, but in reality it could be the one, simple act that prevents the untimely death of a friend.

Students can also help keep their friends safe by keeping track of where they are. Think about it: the nine who drowned in La Crosse were all males. This isn't because there's some serial killer on the loose. Society tells us that females need to be protected while men are perfectly fine on their own. Because of this, if a female wants to leave a bar someone will usually offer to walk her home. This seems to be less common among males. But if everyone uses the buddy system, tragedies such as that of Craig Meyers can be prevented.

Anyone interested in volunteering for Operation: River Watch contact the La Crosse Police Department or visit the program's Web site at operationriverwatch.com.

 

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