August 22, 2010

Latest buzz in the Old Port? It's safer this summer

Beefed-up security, better weather and the memory of a May tragedy help take the fight out of the night.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

and Matt Wickenheiser
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - It's Aug. 13, a warm Friday night in the Old Port, but to Sgt. Bob Doherty, it feels like a Tuesday -- quiet.

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Though the night of Friday, Aug. 13, was uncommonly quiet in Portland's Old Port, closing time still resulted in a flood of young people on Wharf Street. This was the scene at about 1:15 a.m., a half-hour after last call.

Matt Wickenheiser photo

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Oasis doorman Zack Swander, right, checks IDs at about 11 p.m. on the night of Friday, Aug. 13. Oasis and 51 Wharf are using ID scanners that flag any patrons who have previously caused problems at the bars.

Matt Wickenheiser photo

On Wharf Street, the heart of the city's nightlife district, a few hundred young people are hitting the clubs. But by Old Port standards, it's a compact and subdued crowd.

In a relatively small area where alcohol, people and hormones can come together with violent consequences, the most dangerous thing this evening has been numerous stiletto heels skittering crazily across cobblestones.

This summer, like other summers, the police department has beefed up its Old Port presence to help control the crowd. Doherty and a half-dozen other Portland police officers have been here since about 10 p.m. -- the lull before the approach of last call.

At midnight, an hour before the bars close, activity picks up. Lines form at two popular clubs, Oasis and 51 Wharf, as young people surge to make an appearance in the waning hours of the night.

Soon the bars start to empty, with groups of friends leaving in small packs. At 1 a.m., there's a flood of people a few hundred strong. 1:20, they're gone. Wharf Street is deserted. No fights, no shoves, no hard looks.

The Old Port has been a quieter place so far this year compared with last summer, with less crime and fewer conflicts, according to police statistics and the people who work or patrol there.

A comparison of police calls in the area from May 23 to July 28 last year and the same period this year shows the number of reported incidents dropped 27 percent, from 206 to 150. For this report, the Old Port is defined as the area bordered by Commercial, Congress, Center and Franklin streets. Within that area, there are dozens of drinking establishments.

"The officers are noticing smaller crowds and we're encountering fewer problems overall in the Old Port," police Cmdr. Vern Malloch said.

Crimes that often reflect on the area's nightlife, such as assaults, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct, dropped 18 percent, from 90 incidents to 74, according to department statistics.

Police have taken extra steps to keep the peace in the area since a man was killed May 23 in Monument Square. Police charged a Gray man, who they say had been out partying in the Old Port, with manslaughter.

Authorities say William Googins, 20, punched Eric Benson once in the face. Benson fell, hit his head on the bricks and later died. According to police accounts, Googins and friends had been at the Oasis before walking to Monument Square. They began harassing a female companion of Benson's, police said, and then Googins hit him.

The incident may have turned some people off to the city's nightlife, keeping crowds down. The following Friday, which kicked off the Memorial Day weekend, was extremely quiet, police said.

Some Old Port patrons and security workers also raised another point: Benson's death and Googins' arrest may have given potential rowdies pause.

"It's in the back of everyone's mind," said James Kingsbury, security manager at 51 Wharf.

Adam St. Laurent of Acton was on Wharf Street with some friends last weekend. In the past, he said, there seemed to have been more "'bros' trying to fight." This time, he'd bumped a few people and spilled a drink or two without anyone taking offense. People are thinking twice before throwing a punch, he said.

"People got the fear that a fist can kill someone," St. Laurent said.

There are a number of other factors at work, including, surprisingly, the weather.

"This year in particular would be a significant decrease (in police calls) mainly because business is so far down, and business is down because the weather is so nice," said Douglas Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney's Irish pub. "When it's cloudy and cool, people come into town."

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