updated 4/23/2009 3:25:01 PM ET 2009-04-23T19:25:01

Gangs of men punching people on the street at random. Street fights where bystanders sometimes cheer, and where those who try to intervene sometimes get beaten themselves.

Police in this quintessential college town say there's been a dramatic rise in unprovoked beatings in the downtown area next to the University of Iowa over the last several months. Though the mix of young people and alcohol often leads to fighting, police say the intense violence and random nature of the attacks have them worried.

"It isn't always a matter of somebody putting themselves in harm's way," Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said. "Now it seems like it's just for the sheer pleasure of it, that's what seems to be different."

Several recent incidents
Police don't break out statistics for the downtown area near campus, but they point to several disturbing incidents in the past month alone:

  • On March 27, a college-aged man was assaulted at about 2 a.m. downtown. Witnesses said six to 10 men ganged up on him, and when another man tried to intervene, he too was knocked unconscious. Police say the assailants then ran along a downtown street, punching other men as they passed.
  • On April 2, a 22-year-old man was smoking outside a downtown bar when six men approached him and asked for cigarettes. As he was handing them out, the men knocked him to the ground and took the whole pack. Later, the same man walked past a group of men who knocked him to the ground and stole his watch.
  • On April 6, a man woke up to bystanders helping him sit up. The man told police someone he didn't know knocked him unconscious. He didn't realize his jaw was broken until a hospital visit the next afternoon.
  • On April 16, two college-age men stepped outside a bar to smoke at about 1:15 a.m. After an argument with others, one of the men was pushed to the ground, then kicked and punched by several people. He suffered a broken nose and a head cut requiring staples to close.

"I really don't understand the motivation for the violence," Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey said. "It's severe and concerning that people find this acceptable and people are seeking this out."

Kelsay said police have stepped up late-night patrols downtown, but they have had a hard time tracking down suspects because they usually can't find witnesses. And sometimes those who see a beating actually cheer on the attackers, he said.

"It's become an unfortunate part of the bar culture in Iowa City," Kelsay said.

Bars and liquor stores to blame?
Some Iowa City officials think a recent proliferation of bars and liquor stores downtown is partly to blame. There are 46 businesses permitted to sell liquor in the nine-square-block area next to the 29,000-student campus — a 50 percent increase from a decade ago.

Next month, the City Council will consider a measure backed by a planning commission that would require future bars to be 500 feet apart and ensure 1,000 feet between liquor stores. City officials earlier rejected such moves.

"With too much of a concentration (of establishments) such as bars and liquor stores, it becomes overburdened with that type of use," said Karen Howard, an associate planner in the city's Urban Planning Department. "We want to have a downtown that's open not just in the evening, but to a whole variety of people."

Bailey said the city also has sought help from the University of Iowa. Together, the school and city launched an "alcohol summit" in March to address binge drinking and suggest nonalcoholic alternatives.

'Don't know if there's a solution'
Students acknowledge there's a problem, but few seem intent on resolving the situation.

"It's easy to blame alcohol," said 20-year-old Justin Boltz, an Iowa undergraduate. "I don't know if there's a solution."

Thomas Reynolds, a 19-year-old Iowa student, said he noticed the violence picking up last summer, when a friend was hospitalized after being beaten by a man asking for a cigarette.

But Reynolds also seemed resigned to the problem and didn't think the city's zoning plan would help much.

"Then they'll just make the bars bigger," Reynolds said. "You'll still see 100 people outside."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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