Story and Photos by Amy Miller
New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday, August 2, 1987
After the hottest day of the year, spend a night in a cruiser with Hampton police to sample nightlife on "The Strip."
It's 11:30 p.m. on a Friday, a hot summer night on the strip. Families have gone home for the night, and Hampton Beach looks like one big party for young people.
Dan Florent, senior patrolman on duty, cruises up Ocean Boulevard. Supervisor for the night shift, Florent is in charge of more than 30 patrolmen on duty. While most of the world is asleep, the Hampton police face their busiest hours of the week — Fridays and Saturdays after 11 p.m.
drives up the strip trying to get a feel for the evening's crowd.
Traffic is moving at a snail's pace as Unit 8, the low-profile supervisor's cruiser, passes by Club Casino. Teenagers stroll by the arcades or lean against walls and posts. To the untrained eye, nothing out of the ordinary is happening, but Florent suddenly slams the car into park and leaps out onto the street. Behind him, a man dressed in casual clothes is pulling some youngsters from a car.
Within seconds, the occupants of the car are standing on the street, arms in the air, as several police officers converge to assist in the apparent search for contraband.
Florent returns to the cruiser, explaining that the man in casual clothes was a plain-clothed officer who regularly walks up and down the strip. By now, beer bottles and a six pack of wine coolers decorate the roof of the car, advertising the cause of the police action to scores of curious onlookers.
A 31-year-old male from Manchester and a 34-year-old female from Chelmsford, Mass., are arrested, and the plain-clothed officer continues his rounds.
Such arrests, among hundreds on the beach each weekend, are indicative of life on the beach beat. On a typical Friday night during the summer, the Hampton Police Department makes more than 30 or 40 arrests, typically handcuffing more than 200 people per weekend. More than half those arrested are likely to be charged with alcohol-related offenses, mostly open container violations or possession by someone under 21.
For the police at Hampton Beach, controlling the flow of alcohol is a number one priority. Through the years, police here have learned most of their trouble begins with liquor and its abuse.
As the popularity of Hampton Beach has grown, especially its popularity as a night spot, locals have grown fearful the area would become too rowdy and lose its family character.
As a result, businesses, police and others with an interest in the beach have made various moves to keep Hampton's coast a comfortable family resort area. Everything from the summer slogan attached to Hampton Beach bumper stickers —Family Fun Under the Sun — to the adoption of new local ordinances is meant to encourage an atmosphere that keeps visitors safe and comfortable.
It is the police department which, from day to day, plays the most critical role in achieving this goal. To a large degree, the mere presence of police keeps a lid on the action, Through many of the hot summer hours, dozens of police on duty merely walk, or ride, up and down the streets, helping carefree vacationers remember there are limits on what they can do.
In a square mile of Hampton Beach, it is not unusual to see a dozen or more police officers — on foot, on horses, on motorcycles and in cruisers. In addition to these town police, several state troopers may be out directing traffic.
The Hampton police force swells from 36 full-time officers in the winter to a force with 60 special police in the summer. In addition, the state in recent years has allocated money to send about 10 state troopers down to the beach on weekends to assist town officers on patrol.
July 24, one of the hottest days of the year, was a fairly typical Friday night on the beach, perhaps somewhat quiet. By the end of the evening, police had broken up a few fights, quieted down several parties and arrested 35 people on a variety of relatively minor offenses.
But more important perhaps than the arrests made was the visibility of the officers. Verbal warnings or even piercing glares at potential troublemakers achieved their desired effect.
AS EVENING hours turn to night and the beach crowd is replaced by the night crowd, Patrolman Brian Chevalier is in charge. A 12-year veteran of the department, Chevalier is prepared for the worst. The air is heavy with lingering heat from the day's 90-degree temperatures. It's the kind of weather that brings people to the beach and hot tempers to the people. On nights like these, the night crowd often collides head on with the early morning beach goers.
At 9 p.m., though, the strip was still fairly quiet, although crowded. Patrolmen had answered one call for domestic violence, which led to a fighting couple in possession of two guns. The woman claimed the man was playing Russian Roulette with her head. The guns were temporarily removed from the house.
At the police station, several officers were busy entertaining a 5 year-old boy who lost his parents on B Street. An adult found Brian Merrill of Stoneham, Mass., and brought him into the station. Within minutes, the parents were located and came to retrieve their frightened son.
After checking in at the station, Chevalier headed the cruiser down one of the letter streets. "This is M Street," Chevalier says. "It has been one of the notorious streets over the years, just for parties and people having a wild time. You ask any officer what's a party street and he'll say M Street."
Tonight, however, all is quiet on M Street.
The cruiser turns onto Ocean Boulevard, where even at this time of night traffic is backed up in both directions. To avoid the back-up, Chevalier drives down the pedestrian walk that runs along the beach. This way, he explains, he can also make a check on the beach, where dozens of people remain.
Chevalier joins other police officers, congregating at police parking near the Chamber of Commerce building. It is one of the only sure places to park at this hour, and it is a good spot for police to monitor the scene.
The officers on horses ride up and down the beach, while police on motorcycles whip through the traffic, getting quickly from one place to another while cars are backed up for miles.
On days like July 4th, when it took 90 minutes to go from the police station to Route 51, less than a mile away, cruisers can quickly lose their value.
THE STRIP of meters near the police parking area has recently been the subject of heated controversy in town. On request from the police and chamber of commerce, the state passed a law banning parking after 10 p.m. at 60 spaces in the heart of beach activity.
Although police and several business people report the ban reduced loitering in the area to a minimum, state officials decided it was not such a good idea after all and the ban has temporarily been suspended. Although the official reason for the change of heart was that some retailers reported a loss of business, police believe that the change transpired after one or more state senators had their own cars towed from the area.
Hampton Police Chief Bob Mark, although off duty, made a visit to the police parking lot. Dressed in shorts and a casual shirt, he was off for a night with the family, but stopped by nonetheless, as he nearly always does, to make sure all was running smoothly.
Unlike in many departments, the patrolmen are anxious to praise their chief. Several officers commented that Mark is not afraid to get out on the street. "He's just like one of us," the patrolmen say, obviously pleased that their supervisor does not lock himself up in the station.
Mark, for his part, seems to enjoy the activity at the beach. He respects the need for strict law enforcement, but also the need to allow vacationers a good time. "People complain about the noise, but heck, that's what a resort is for. Why don't we close all the night clubs, bars, stores that sell liquor and a few other joints such as the arcades and maybe we'll have a retirement community instead of a resort community, because that's what makes a resort community."
If he sees someone drinking beer who is obviously uninformed about the open container law, Mark will quietly issue a warning. "My philosophy is, if I see a guy drinking a beer standing there talking to me, I know he doesn't know. I'm not going to arrest him."
On the other hand, Mark is aware that stern enforcement and high visibility is the key to keeping Hampton relatively calm.
On this Friday night, Mark tried to read the crowd, to decide if police on the shift that ends at 11 p.m. should be asked to stay on through the night. For the last two weekends, the beach had been so busy, officers were asked to stay on after the end of their shift.
Chevalier confers with the chief, but they reach no conclusion and decide to see how things look at 11. Chevalier returns to his cruiser, where he catches what sound like some mumblings on the scanner. There has been a complaint about noise from a home at the north end of the beach.
Noise complaints about this house are common, but every time the police arrive at the scene, the music and noise have magically disappeared. The resident, Chevalier explains, apparently has a scanner and stays one step ahead of police visits to his house. On this occasion, the police agree to trade information by phone and in person. Chevalier heads to a parking lot off high street, where he meets another cruiser.
The two cruisers then head for the party, managing to arrive there undetected. Although the party is far from rambunctious, it is clearly audible to the neighbors, who consider 10:30 p.m. too late for this kind of noise. Chevalier warns the host that if any further complaints are made about the party and the noise doesn't die down, he will be arrested. A resident is responsible for anyone on his or her property, the officer explains.
Unprintable comments are heard flying from the porch, as guests object to the host's requests that they leave. The two cruisers drive off, leaving the partyers with one more chance.
Although Hampton police have always answered calls of this sort, an ordinance that went into effect this summer has given them one more tool for enforcement. The noise ordinance bans any amplified music in a public place. Police can now issue a ticket for loud parties, radios blaring from cars or "boom boxes" carried on shoulders.
The other ordinance adopted this year, also meant to keep the beach "clean," is a trash ordinance. Trash cannot be placed on the street until after 9 p.m. at night. Not only does this cut down on odor and unsightliness, but police say it makes it easier to keep strollers on the sidewalk, keeping the streets clearer for traffic.
Chevalier heads back to the station. He pulls up behind two cars on Ashworth Boulevard. "Look at them, they're getting ready to play," he says. "The little Fiero is trying to measure up against the Firebird."
Chevalier is able to drive beside one car, and cast a warning glare that's enough to send both drivers on their way.
Despite the heat and thousands of people still out, the beach is relatively tame and the early shift is allowed to go home. Like many officers, Chevalier will do other work on his off-time. Early Saturday morning he planned to pick up his lobster boat in Hampton Harbor and head out to the ocean. After that, the 37-year-old officer would try to get some time with his family.
Like most of the Hampton cops interviewed, Chevalier said would spend his time off somewhere other than Hampton Beach.
As Chief Mark explained, "I'd try not to work, but I'd end up doing it anyway."
PATROLMAN Florent, who took the reins as department supervisor at 11 p.m., used to visit the beach when he was a youth. Now, at 25, it's up to him to make sure peace is kept during the busiest hours.
He explains that the night shift is a different ballgame from daytime. "There an 'Officer Friendly' image during the day, but it doesn't work at night," explains the 25-year-old patrolman. "It's a different mentality out there."
The change in attitude is nothing official, nothing patrolmen are taught. They just learn — after a certain time of night — people need to be addressed with a sterner hand.
Florent rides past a party on a porch on Ashworth Boulevard.
"I'm coming back here in 10 minutes," he tells a group of about 15 partyers. "If there are any minors here, they're getting arrested whether they're holding a beer or not."
The "yes, officer" he gets in return is less than convincing, but Florent seems optimistic the threat will be enough. "Usually a warning like that does the trick."
Florent explains he has ways of knowing there were minors on that porch. "Did you hear when we pulled up all the beers hitting the deck," he asked.
About half hour later Florent cruises by the house. The porch seems to have thinned out. He and another officer walk around the property. The group of mostly young men on the porch, who report they are from Lowell, do not seem intimidated by the police. They act confident they are within the law.
Florent returns to the cruiser, satisfied the scene is legal. Just as Cruiser 8 reaches the police parking area, state troopers are pulling over a car. The vehicle had a headlight out, reason enough to pull the driver over. Once the car was stopped, the police may notice something else, "probable cause" as they call it — a joint, a beer can, an odor — that gives them a license to search.
In this case, the cause was there. Police search the vehicle and two people who were inside. One of the men is arrested for possession of a controlled drug.
And so the night goes on. By 2 a.m. the police have made more than 35 arrests, nearly all of them open container violations or illegal possession of something. By Sunday, 151 people have been brought in, although none for serious offenses.
It is these arrests, and some that were never made, that help keep the beach quiet and under control.
"The department does have a good reputation," notes Florent. "People know what they can and can't do. I guess some would call it a bad reputation, but it's a reputation for keeping order. You're not going to get away with a lot if you come up here."