Wannabe Phish Heads
Undercover narcotics officers in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, may have learned the lingo but apparently couldn’t pull off the look at a recent Phish concert.
Despite scouring Internet Web sites devoted to the band in order to learn about the Phish subculture, police admit that fans were able to quickly spot undercover officers looking for “Molly” (Ecstasy) during the September 18 show at Blossom Music Center.
Sgt. Larry Wagner of the city’s narcotics division went online to mine the murky depths of the concert scene for tips – including slang use – that might help undercover officers blend with the crowd.
“In order to do any kind of intelligence, you have to look at all of the information that’s available to find out: Are these people violent? Are they mellow? Do they use a lot of dope?
“The Internet is pretty much an open intelligence area for anybody – on both sides – so why not utilize it?” Wagner told Pollstar.
He emphasized he didn’t go into chat rooms during his cyber-sleuthing, and the narcotics division didn’t single out Phish fans for closer-than-normal scrutiny for any reason other than it was the band’s first visit to the region.
He added that narcotics division officers did not work the Furthur Festival at the same venue on September 7, nor the Ozzfest show July 20.
“We’d heard that they were a younger, basically Grateful Dead-type thing and we wanted to look at that.
“Honestly, this is a different type of group than any we’ve worked before, so this was a bit different. [The fans] are closer-knit than with most of the groups, so they know each other a little bit better and it’s harder for the police department to get in there without being spotted. Then you get guys like me who are a little bit older and really don’t fit the profile,” Wagner said.
He explained that the narcotics division was more interested in what was going on in the parking lots than inside the venue. “There’s a whole group of them that don’t even go into the concert. They just show up to party and basically just to sell their wares.”
There were fewer than 20 felony drug-related arrests, almost all for what Wagner called “low-grade” offenses.
“We weren’t concentrating on people who were smoking a joint here or there; we were looking more at the heavier stuff, the more dangerous types. Like mushrooms. There were a lot of psilocybin mushrooms and LSD.
“I think it was just the tip of the iceberg out there,” Wagner said.
Representatives for Phish were unavailable for comment.
Computer technique aside, the Cuyahoga Falls police did learn one valuable lesson from their close encounter of the Phish kind.
“I think [Phish fans] can tell the difference between Kmart tie-dyes and the ones they get at the concert,” Wagner explained.
“There’s something to be said for wearing aged tie-dyed T-shirts rather than new ones. It doesn’t help when it says ‘Kmart.’ One of the guys showed up in a Joe’s Crab Shack shirt and I don’t think that’s their normal attire. It was a learning experience,” he chuckled.
Despite apparently sticking out like sore thumbs, police made their fair share of arrests in and outside of the venue, with up to 90 people being detained on substance-abuse charges ranging from underage drinking to felony possession of LSD, Ecstasy and other drugs.
But the advance research may have paid off in other ways, too.
“Our forward intelligence on [Phish fans] was just to handle them in a subtle way and don’t be over aggressive with them; use proper language with them – don’t make fun of their body piercings or whatever or anything like that,” Wagner said.
“Just treat them like anyone else, which is the way you should treat them anyway.”
After all – Phish are people, too.