Halloween in Salem is a spectacle — think of it as a kind of Goth Mardi Gras. People are out to party with the weirdest, wildest costumes and accompanying behavior.
But despite the debauchery and crowds that can reach 70,000, there are practically no public disturbances. This year, the Salem Police Department made only 3 arrests.
Do the Salem Police have some special secret for effective crowd control?
Captain Conrad Prosniewski, Salem Police’s commander in charge of support services, says it’s pretty simple. As Halloween in Salem has grown into a huge event over the decades, the police has adapted their response over time.
“Every year we started to change our tactics and tweak things on what worked and what didn't. And we finally come up with a template that … we've been going by for the last 15 or 20 years or so in crowd control,” he said.
Prosniewski says there’s no crowd psychology master plan that anyone can learn.
“It's not something that's taught black and white in the police academy,” he said.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Maria (Maki) Haberfeld agrees. She has served in enforcement in Israel and in the U.S. and has studied police training in environments around the world. She says there’s no “best practices template.” There’s simply no substitute for “knowing your environment, and knowing the public that you're going to police.”
But that approach — Salem’s strategy, rather than its tactics — can provide some universal takeaways for approaching crowd control. Here are five:
1. Know Your Town
Every part of Salem is covered by police on Halloween night. It is impossible to be on the streets downtown and not be in the line of sight of at least one officer.
“We basically do it by separating the city into segments, five different sectors,” said Prosniewski. Each “has its own command staff, its own police officers; it's almost like five police departments in the downtown area that have their boundaries, and they have people assigned to them from different agencies, so you have a commander in charge with his own staff.”
Haberfeld says this approach “has a long history of effectiveness when you need to control crowds, and especially when you need to control crowds that aren't predictable.”
It’s also great for children, and adults, who get lost.
2. Less is More
When it comes to crowd control, Salem Police Chief Mary Butler says “we try not to be too pushy. We learned that early on [that] trying to push the crowd … that's when all hell breaks loose.”
What you see on the streets of Salem on Halloween night doesn’t look like what you would even think of as crowd control. There are no cops on horseback or wearing special gear, clearing the streets with bullhorns. The police basically hang back and let the crowd clear itself.
3. Give The Crowd Instructions Ahead of Time
Haberfeld says giving the crowd a clear plan ahead of time means “it's not left to be some sort of spontaneous event that can take dangerous turns from the perspective of crowd control.”
Salem’s most useful tool for accomplishing this may be the Halloween fireworks.
“The fireworks is the big sign, and that's something we learned probably about seven or eight years ago,” said Prosniewski. “When people see the fireworks going off over the train station, it acts as a as a sign for people to start leaving, and they do. People realize it's the end of the night. And we usually have quite an orderly exit slow orderly exit out of town.”
The planning works brilliantly, but a lot of groundwork is required to make sure the crowds know what to do. For instance, when you get into the Salem T station on Halloween night, they make it clear that the last train is at 11. The police, local transit and government post details of what happens when all over social media.
“This an example of good police-community relations that happens before the [event] starts,” said Haberfeld. She says that the police communicating clearly ahead of time that public alcohol consumption will not be tolerated, means the crowd arrives “in a different frame of mind, and a different state of mind.”
4. Know Your Crowd
Telling a crowd of thousands what to do is easy, but getting them to listen? That requires not just getting the word out well ahead of time, but year-round engagement with the community. Prosniewski says that is at an all-time high.
“I found this year, particularly, that the public banter with our law enforcement people has been very, very good. There's been a lot of people coming up and shaking our hands and telling us, ‘thank you for being here. We love seeing so many of you are out here. We feel safe.’ I mean, it's just been an unusual amount of that this year,” he said. “In this day and age, when sometimes police work isn't the most popular profession, it's kind of nice to see people go come over and give you a pat on the back.”
But the Salem Police can’t rest on that good feeling. They can’t really rest at all, in fact, which leads us to the final lesson of Salem’s Halloween success:
5. Prepare Ahead of Time
For an annual event this big, it never stops. The Salem Police Department has already started their analysis of this year’s Halloween and is going straight into planning for 2018.