It is 12:18 am, the early morning hours of a recent summer night, and Circuit Avenue is throbbing with a sea of people, near the end of an evening of revelry. They gather near the entrances to Ritz, the Lampost, the Island House, the Dive Bar, Seasons Pub, and the other bars and clubs that line the street sometimes referred to as “Circus” Avenue.
Detective Nick Curelli, a veteran Oak Bluffs police officer, observes the scene with a keen eye, from an unobtrusive post across the street from the largest part of the crowd. He is the officer in charge on this night, guiding the efforts of the other officers on foot and patrolling in a police cruiser. He is alert for the slightest hint of trouble.
A young woman in a very short skirt and very high high heels wobbles across the street near Det. Curelli’s post. “Some guy is trying to start a fight over nothing,” she says, pointing back over her shoulder to the opposite sidewalk. Detective Curelli and another officer move that way, easing between the parked cars, approaching the crowd from opposite directions. Moving very slowly, they maneuver onto the sidewalk and into the small group gathered there. Det. Curelli is a man of few words, and in this case, only a few words are needed. That’s all it takes for the potential troublemaker to think again. A few people step on, and the small group begins to thin. Nothing much happens. That’s exactly the way Det. Curelli wants it.
“The calm before the storm,” he says.
At about 12:29 am, the “calm” hits. Oak Bluffs bars can serve alcohol until 1 am, but they must close their doors a half hour earlier. Police strictly enforce this condition of alcohol licenses. Nobody gets in after 12:30 am. That is to prevent bar patrons from Edgartown, where last call is 12:30 am, from jumping into vehicles and racing to Oak Bluffs for one last round.
So in the minutes leading up to door closing, sometimes with an understated motion of the arm, sometimes with a shout heard several doors down, bouncers cajole the crowds to get inside before the doors swing shut.
On cue, door latches click up and down Circuit Avenue. In a matter of seconds, the din of voices settles to near silence, and the pounding bass beats are reduced to a dull throb, felt through vibrations in the street more than heard through thick walls.
The police officers on duty take a breath, but stay alert.
A woman exits one establishment and walks through Healey Way to the edge of Kennebec Street. A moment later another woman exits the same bar, walks up to the first woman, and screams “Don’t you ever talk to me that way again.”
“Get your finger out of my face,” comes the quick reply, screamed in an equally loud voice.
In a matter of seconds, two uniformed officers come running from Circuit Avenue. They separate the two women, quietly diffuse the dispute, and send each on their way.
By 1 am, most of the officers are posted strategically along Circuit Avenue, with one officer covering the harbor area. They stay within sight of each other, so that help is available quickly. In a few minutes it will be time for the “storm.”
About 1:20 am, the clubs and restaurants start to empty. At first, a few people at a time spill onto the sidewalk. Then hundreds of people disgorge onto Circuit Avenue. Everybody must be out of the establishments by 1:30 am. The din of voices ramps up quickly, louder now, though the pounding bass beat is done for the night.
The crowd spills out between the parked cars into the middle of the street. After a night of celebration, many in the party crowd, even those who are standing in the middle of the Circuit Avenue, aren’t paying much attention to vehicles. An officer steps up quickly when tail lights flash on a parked car, or when a vehicle rounds the corner from Lake Avenue and proceeds up street. On some nights, police simply block off the street with a police cruiser parked crossways at the base of Circuit Avenue.
As long as there is no trouble, and tonight there isn’t, police make no immediate attempt to sweep the streets clear. Phone numbers get exchanged, rides home get arranged, goodbyes get said, and a few final flirts get flirted. The officers simply watch it all, vigilant for any hint of a problem.
All of these people have to get home, and some of them will do it behind the wheel of a vehicle. The officers watch carefully for anyone who appears intoxicated. Someone weaving a path down the sidewalk with keys in his hands will prompt an officer to intervene. But for the most part, Det. Curelli says, people here are not about to jump into a car when they shouldn’t, especially within sight of several police officers.
“Ten years ago, we could have arrested as many people as you want,” Det. Curelli says. Now, he says, people are more aware of the consequences.
At 1:40 am, most people are leaving Circuit Avenue. A few linger. “Most people want to go home,” Det. Curelli says. The officers begin to gravitate toward the remaining pockets of people, ever so slightly increasing their visibility and presence. When several officers step directly into the last group or two, even the lingerers get the hint. By 1:50 am, Circuit Avenue is virtually deserted. No arrests, no altercations, nothing more disturbing than a few angry words interfere with the evening’s carousing. The police officers, some at the end of their shift, some at the beginning, hustle off to the next task, moving faster than they have most of the evening.
It is 12:15 am, the early morning hours of the next night, and the timeline of the evening drama is about to begin again. Bouncers are starting to herd patrons back inside before the doors close, and police officers are taking up inconspicuous posts along lower Circuit Avenue. Tonight, Sgt. George Fisher is the officer in charge, as he has been on many midnights throughout a 35-year law enforcement career in his hometown. Tonight there are more people out and about, so there are more police officers, on foot, in a patrol car, and on a bicycle. They form a quiet presence, visible, certainly, in blue uniform shirts stretched tightly over armored vests, and black belts adorned with handcuffs, flashlights, a sidearm, and various other tools of the police trade. But they tend to stand a bit away from the street lights, where they can mostly see, and not so much be seen. “We’re in the doorways, certain areas, always somebody up here,” Sgt. Fisher says, from his perch on a raised stairway platform where he has a bird’s eye view of the street. The last thing these officers want is to give someone who has had one too many, a reason for a confrontation. That can quickly tumble into a dangerous situation, dangerous for everyone.
“It’s more prevention than response,” Sgt. Fisher says. “Once it happens, a brawl, it’s too late. Friends jump in, bystanders get involved.”
Though the hour is late, the officers are alert, using all of their faculties to sniff out a problem before it escalates. “You do use all your senses,” Sgt. Fisher says. “You can feel if there’s a fight in the Lampost, the whole building begins to rumble.”
If there is anything that might help him get an edge on the situation, Sgt. Fisher is not about to leave it to chance. Earlier in the evening, he made the rounds of bars and clubs, scoping out the crowds. He gets a count from the bouncers, and notes if any well known troublemakers are on the street. With experience, the police officers get a good feel for the way the evening will go. Certain things ring warning bells. “A lot of people drinking early in the night,” Sgt. Fisher says. “Maybe an altercation that festers, you get a sense of it.”
Club owners can face a huge legal liability if there are problems in their establishments. Jamie Hayes, general manager and co-owner of the Lampost, says cooperation with police works both ways.
“It may start here, but it may escalate somewhere else,” Mr. Hayes said. “They need to know that. If there’s a problem in the bar, we try to relay to them what happened, who it was. They give us a heads up, ‘you might want to watch out for this guy.'”
On a busy night, there could be more than 800 people in the four-story building that houses the Lampost and several other clubs, a daunting challenge for bar managers and police alike. “I don’t think we could ask for anything better, considering the number of people we have in here.”
A quiet presence wasn’t always the preferred police procedure on Circuit Avenue. “We went for years trying to keep them from gathering at all,” Sgt. Fisher. “That was more confrontational.”
It is up to Chief Erik Blake to implement policing policy, hire and train the right people for the job, all within the constraints of time and budgets. Given the dozens of variables that go into the equation, that is a difficult task.
“There have been summers when there were fights every night, and there were huge crowds and you didn’t have enough people to properly police,” Chief Blake says. “There have been years when we had extra people and it wasn’t as busy. We tend to judge how many people we’re going to hire on a gut feeling from the year before, coupled with what the budget can do, never wanting to go below what will be safe for the officers on the street.”
Tonight, Sgt. Fisher’s sense that it will be a quiet night proves correct. Patrons begin to tumble out of the Circuit Avenue establishments right on cue, at about 1:20 am. The crowds are larger than the previous night, but they seem ready to head home more quickly.
“When it’s over, it’s over,” Sgt. Fisher says. “If you’re having a perfect night, after the first ten minutes, they’re ready to go.”
Nothing much happens. That’s just the way Sgt. Fisher wants it.