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Counterfeits, drugs and fence-jumping: There's more than rock 'n' roll at Lolla

Shannon Gorsky has seen it all over four years of attending Lollapalooza--and she's not just talking about headliners Mumford & Sons, the Killers and Florence and the Machine.

The 22-year-old Gold Coast resident also has witnessed pocket-picking, counterfeit wristband sales and stampedes of fence-jumpers.

“I've seen people just run through the front gate and disappear into the crowds,” she said. “I’ve seen people clamber on top of the porta-potties that are backed up to the fences [surrounding Lollapalooza] while people are in them, and then they take off like the wind into the festival.”

Gorsky is one of thousands of Lollapalooza’s annual attendees who pay hundreds of dollars each year for passes to the city’s largest music festival, which takes over much of Grant Park for three days in August.

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With close to 300,000 attendees each year, Lollapalooza, running from Aug. 1 to 3, is something like a smaller city in Illinois. And like any city, it has its share of crime--chief among them theft, narcotics sales and criminal trespassing.

In 2013, Chicago police officers made 46 felony and misdemeanor arrests at the lakefront music fest, up from 27 in 2011 (2012 numbers were unavailable). CPD spokesman Martin Maloney attributed the rise in crime to more sophisticated policing efforts and the festival’s rising attendance rate.

Officials with CPD and the city’s Office of Emergency Management declined to comment on how many law enforcement officials are posted at the event each year, but police reports from last year’s festival show that CPD sends at least one team of undercover police officers to the festival each year. The teams perform “buy-bust” missions, where they purchase illegal hallucinogens from alleged dealers at the festival and charge them with manufacturing and delivery of a controlled substance, which is a felony.

Trespassing on festival grounds is also a crime officials must contend with each year, when would-be festgoers try to scale the rows of fences that block off Lollapalooza along Lake Shore Drive and around Grant Park.

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Britt Pearce, a spokeswoman for Lollapalooza, said in an email that officials have stepped up measures to keep people without tickets out of the festival since 2011, when they made structural changes to beef up the fence line.

“We monitor everything from social media to suspicious activity outside the festival to ensure the security of fans, artists and staff,” she said.

Officials have also used better technology to try to combat the sale of counterfeit tickets and use of counterfeit wristbands. One example is radio-frequency identification (RFID), which wirelessly tracks identification data.

“Counterfeit tickets are an unfortunate fact of any live event, however the implementation of RFID technology prevents phony wristband-holders from entering the festival,” she said.

Fest attendees can register their wristbands before the event, she said, which makes them easier to relocate or replace when they are stolen or damaged.

But in recent years, crime reports from Lollapalooza have ranged from the tragic to the bizarre. In 2012 a man was stabbed near the corner of South Michigan Avenue and East Adams Street, just outside the park, and dozens of people stampeded a fence to get into the festival for free, evading security guards by charging the fence at once and outnumbering them. In 2011, Portland, Ore.-based band Portugal. The Man lost much of their music gear after their van and trailer were broken into and stolen while parked in the festival lot.

And in 2009, a man was accused of punching a police horse on East Congress Avenue as the festival was winding down.

Bob O’Neill, president of Grant Park Conservancy, said crime reports from the concert should be viewed in context of the festival’s size.

“If you look at it per capita, there aren’t a lot of incidents of safety being compromised or anything, there aren’t that many arrests,” he said. “For the most part, it really works.”

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As a paying festgoer whose music appreciation sets her back several hundred dollars each summer, Gorsky said she wishes Lollapalooza could police its perimeter better.

“It’s so frustrating; a lot of people pay a lot of money for these festivals, Lolla passes soar into the high $200s and low $300s,” Gorsky said. “It’s sad that when you’re there to enjoy yourself and you see someone else pass you who is enjoying it for free. You’ve worked hard to be there, and people are just walking in.”

O’Neill said Lollapalooza’s security measures have evolved over the years, from chain-link fences that easily give to more sturdy steel fences, which are sometimes erected in double rows.

Breaking into Lollapalooza, “is far more difficult now than in the last two or three years,” he said, “because every year you learn those areas where people are doing it.”

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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