PORTLAND — It’s just after 1 a.m. and the nightlife is flowing from Old Port clubs onto Wharf Street.

Last call’s at 12:45. The bars close at 1. And then Old Port’s streets become the scene.

Young people at varying levels of intoxication linger on the cobblestones. Friends find missing friends. There are hugs – sometimes sloppy ones.

The reggae music that has been playing on the patio outside the Oasis has stopped. Excited, often slurred chatter instead fills the brick canyon of buildings.

Bouncers try to move them along. They don’t want problems inside – or directly outside – their clubs.

“Let’s go – there’s got to be someplace better to hang out,” one yells.

Watching it all are nine Portland police officers, standing together, a dark blue deterrent against any problems as the largely drunken crowd grows.

It’s been a quiet night for a warm Friday, now Saturday morning. Bouncers and bartenders have commented about it, noting that their bars and nightclubs weren’t as packed as normal.

Where there’s maybe 300, 350 people on Wharf Street now, there could be many more on a busy night. It doesn’t feel like anything will happen tonight.

Until Sgt. Bob Doherty suddenly says “there’s something” and moves into the crowd, officers following.

About 10 feet away, there was a back and forth between a few men in the crowd, shoves that threaten to become more. Officers separate the group. Bouncers from the Oasis help. One of the men at the heart of the problem says he’ll go, and moves about a dozen feet away. He’s still causing problems, so the police move him farther away, up against a wall.

As he talks to police, becoming increasingly upset, his friends yell at him – “Shut up. Just shut up.”

The officers tell them to move on, but they linger, still yelling. Some try to talk with the officers, get their friend out of trouble. The police are patient, but don’t give. Their friend is at the point where he’s going to jail on disorderly conduct charges.

The mood has shifted abruptly. Some in the crowd snap at the officers. There are still hugs, people still come up and say “hello” to the police, but there’s an underlying tension.

The crowd slowly moves off Wharf, down Union, up to Fore, down Commercial toward Bill’s Pizza – like toothpaste being squeezed down the tube.

Even on a quiet night there’s an unpredictability to the Old Port.

The police try to mitigate that with increased presence. Earlier on Fore Street, as last call approached, there were two police cars parked across from the bars with an officer standing nearby, three police officers across the street and another cruiser making swings through the streets.

In the wake of an attack last Sunday in Portland that left a 24-year-old Westbrook man dead and a 20-year-old Gray man charged with manslaughter, Police Chief James Craig has doubled the resources in the Old Port on traditionally busy nights. On this Friday night, Saturday morning, there were 12 officers walking the cobblestones.

Doherty says the increased number of police on the ground “generates voluntary compliance.”

“We’re not here to scare folks,” he says.

Instead, the officers watch the crowd, wave to people, catch the eyes of people that might be trouble. They talk, using “verbal judo” to defuse situations, says Doherty. But when they have to, they arrest people.

“If somebody looks like they’re flaring up, we try to put them out,” he says.

Doherty says people who get in trouble in the Old Port will have bail conditions put on them barring them from the neighborhood. It’s part of the zero-tolerance policy that Craig is advocating.

It includes an initiative Craig unveiled last week, in cooperation with local bar owners, that went into use this weekend: Bouncers, bartenders, bar owners and others will text message their counterparts at other clubs and bars and officers on patrol when they run into someone who’s causing problems.

When a patron is thrown out of one bar for causing problems, other bars will deny that person entry, and police will be on the lookout for them.

Two bars, 51 Wharf and the Oasis, have also begun using scanning devices that read the bar codes on driver’s licenses. The devices display all the license data, and also detail any past problems the owner has had at the bar.

The Old Port has long represented a sometimes-tenuous balancing act for the city. On one hand, an active night life can be an attractive quality for a city and an economic engine. On the other, it has to be safe. Otherwise, it can actually crimp business.

“For the most part, the night life is good for us in general – it’s good to give our guests options,” says Gerard Kiladjian, general manager of the upscale Portland Harbor Hotel, which is right in the Old Port.

“But when they can see fights from their hotel window, that makes them uncomfortable. Late night, you get all these drunk people – it makes people feel uneasy.”

In general, says Kiladjian, hotel guests feel safe. But some have said they don’t feel safe, and that deters them from returning, he says.

One guest a few months ago, he said, was followed by a drunk in the Old Port. The guest accessed the outer doors with his room key, and the person following couldn’t. So the guy punched the glass and broke the door.

“That person was completely drunk,” Kiladjian said. “I think (responsibility) just goes back a step further – don’t get them that drunk.”

Earlier in the evening in the Old Port, it was quiet. Around 10:30 p.m., the streets had some people, and the bars and clubs were busy, but not packed. The evolution over the night goes from an older, quieter crowd earlier to a younger, rowdier crowd later in the evening.

Officers Vincent Rozzi and Evan Bomba walk the streets, popping into various clubs. They stroll through, checking the bar licences to make sure they’ve not expired and generally providing a presence – letting people know they’re around.

A group of young ladies watches as the two walk by.

What’s a night in the Old Port like for the group? “Creepy, scary weirdos – all the time,” says Kendra Cummings.

“Having these guys here makes you feel better,” she says.

Melissa Sullivan says she walked from the Old Port up to Geno’s on Congress Street a few weekends ago. She says she’ll think twice about it after the assault that left Eric Benson dead.

Meghan Zachary says she feels safer seeing Rozzi and Bomba on the beat.

“I don’t feel afraid walking to my car because I see them around,” she says.

The evening picks up, heading toward last call. Bomba and Rozzi watch as Sean Burnell, 26, of Windham takes a turn too short and winds up on the sidewalk, almost hitting a lamppost and garbage can with his car. After interviewing him and doing some field sobriety tests, they charge him with operating under the influence and carrying a concealed weapon.

After breaking up the fight on Wharf Street, they respond to a call of a woman in a nearby alleyway who has had too much to drink and can’t stand. The Fire Department’s emergency medical staff show up to evaluate her. As the crowd thins, Bomba and Rozzi walk down Dana Street. A man stumbles up against a wall and pauses with intent.

“You better not be (urinating) on the sidewalk,” Rozzi yells at the man, as the two officers head over.

He was, and Rozzi and Bomba charge him accordingly. The man is handcuffed and has a hard time standing. His friend yells advice as Bomba repeatedly asks him to keep moving.

That’s a scene that happens over and over again – police aren’t just dealing with someone who’s done something wrong, but often with their friends, as well. And those friends have sometimes had something to drink, as well.

Rozzi says you can tell who’s going to be a problem in the bars. The guys who are mouthing off to bouncers, who have been overserved with too much alcohol.

“They’re going to be a problem – they’re too drunk to realize what they’re doing,” Rozzi says.

About 45 minutes after the bar close, the streets are empty. The sounds of bottles clinking as cases of empties are stacked by bars and the sweeping of outside patios replace the sound of the crowd.

And the Old Port patrons are replaced by sea gulls that swoop in to find any leftover food.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]