Salem, Massachusetts, Police: Conjuring Effective Community Policing

“Toil double, preventing trouble; Balancing rights, officers juggle.
Policing community as they should, Then the peace is firm and good.”1

Photo: A boy between the ages of 3-4 dressed as a police officer in a halloween celebration

courtesy of the Salem PD

Photo: Man dressed in scarry halloween costume riding a police scooter at a halloween celebration

courtesy of the Salem PD

Salem, as every American child learns in their early grades, was home to the infamous 17th century witch trials. The eventual identification with Halloween was pushed on the city in the 19th century by enterprising local business people looking to cash in on the notoriety. The association is now inescapable. Along the way, Salem became the preferred Halloween destination for thousands. Long known as the “Witch City,” a witch’s hat is still the official logo.

The celebration of Halloween here has evolved into a month-long extravaganza, comprising tens of thousands of visitors and dozens of events, such as the Official Salem Halloween Witches’ Ball; Conjuring the Dead: A Night of Necromancy (communicating with the deceased); The Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo; and The Vampires’ Masquerade Ball. It includes genuine wiccans and pagans, and thousands of more typical families with children, who come to this fabled city of 42,000 to see the spooky sites. The celebration culminates on Halloween night with over 100,000 monsters, superheroes, and goblins from around the United States and the world packing the city’s ancient downtown streets.

Police Chief Paul F. Tucker says that police have one big goal. “We want families to come here, enjoy Salem, and then to get home safely when the night is done. We could not do that without the cooperation of visitors themselves and without the collaboration from Mayor (Kim) Driscoll, our brothers and sisters in law enforcement, and so many more agencies and businesses.”

“Flexible and vigilant”

Effectiveness starts with a community-oriented mission. The Operations Plan for Halloween reads, “The primary goal of all law enforcement personnel is to maintain and foster a family atmosphere throughout the evening…the very nature of Halloween in Salem poses unique challenges…that require officers to be both flexible and vigilant…Halloween creates a carnival-type atmosphere that encourages participants to dress up in costume and to act in a somewhat mischievous manner…Officers are encouraged to exercise discretion and tolerance throughout the event.”

Captain Brian Gilligan, the author and commander of the SPD’s Halloween operations, also reinforces the fact that tolerance does not extend to threats to safety. Officers are directed to pay close attention to costumes and to any items carried by revelers. Costumes can conceal weapons and many include carrying fake weapons, such as swords and axes, which can mask real ones. “One key operating principle is ‘precise responsiveness,’” Gilligan says.

As one positive measure of reduced disorder and crime, arrests have declined each year for the past 6 years. Lt. Kate Stephens, a Salem patrol leader, notices the difference in how she feels on November 1. “I used to wake up sore. Halloween night was chaos.” Police see many fewer weapons and far fewer adult and juvenile probationers, parolees, and gang members of all stripes, because they coordinate on-scene with state Probation, Parole, and youth corrections officers. Gilligan also attributes the increase in the peace to some additional operating principles.

Planning, Lots of

“Planning is priceless,” the captain maintains. Salem’s planning begins in November with a through after-action review of what the police and their partners learned from the just-past October operations. That learning is integrated into the planning, which picks up the pace in late summer of the next year. Partners in preparing now include several City departments, residents and business interests, public transportation agencies, vendors, and especially the hospitality sector’s bar and restaurant operators.


Some of the plan’s most effective tactics came out of learning from past events. 

Curtailing alcohol-related violence. Partiers like to party and restaurants and bars are in business to serve. After action analysis revealed that partiers who stood in line outside crowded establishments from 10:00 PM onward generated a huge share of the problems. People who already had a few grew impatient for a few more and started fighting.

If you allow people to line up outside of bars you are going to have fights, police learned. The solution, developed jointly with the establishments, was to eliminate all lines from 10:00 PM onward. When lines begin to form, the premises close their doors. They usually re-open in 30 minutes or so, but without a drunken and disorderly crowd outside.

Police also learned something else about alcohol. They asked liquor stores to stop selling “nips” on Halloween. They assumed this would cut down on bottles carried in the downtown core. In November they reviewed that tactic and found they had only encouraged drinkers to buy pints and larger jugs. They dropped the nips ban and just policed vigilantly for open containers.

Crowd movement. This is one of the biggest challenges of any event of this type. The wrinkle in Salem is how to move the crowd at the end of the night from the downtown core to the mass transit station on the outskirts. Earlier solutions included massive phalanxes of police “pushing” people along. That was a formula for trouble.

Instead of the police moving the crowd, the police sought to find a way for the crowd to move itself. Gilligan found his solution at Disneyworld. The park closes each night with a fireworks display. The announcement of the fireworks is the cue for the crowd to begin moving to the exits. So, since 2006, the City of Salem has presented fireworks from the North River next to the city’s mass transit station. The regulars now know their cue. A little before 11:00 PM, the fireworks are announced and just about everyone knows to begin to walk to the “exit.” Street vending and outdoor entertainment are shut down and the lights on Salem Common are turned off. The end of the fireworks signals the end of the evening. Street cleaners move in a few minutes behind the exiting people, putting a line under “the night is over.”

The City also adopted the police recommendation to create more outside entertainment, particularly band concerts. In the past, individuals would come to Salem and just gawk and walk aimlessly (and often drink too much). At evening’s end, police confronted individuals who got combative because they were being kicked out before they had “a chance to do anything.” The entertainment remedied the idleness problem.

They still encounter problems when the bars close. But these problems look more like a typical weekend night and a lot less like mass chaos and disorder.

Flattening Command and Geographic Ownership

For Halloween and nights leading up to it, Salem divides its downtown into five sectors, with a lieutenant commanding each sector. Authority is pushed out and down from headquarters to sector commanders. For everything short of a major incident or a forced crowd movement, the commander is “the Police Chief of their little town,” Gilligan says.

Lt. Stephens is one of those “chiefs.” She and her four counterparts receive a customized Operations Handbook with information on the boundaries of her sector; names and call signs for her personnel; notices about known problem areas in the sector; and the sector’s roles in the night’s wrap-up operation. They learn everything they can about the social dynamics in their sectors. This knowledge of the community enables each commander to effectively exercise the flexibility and vigilance that undergird the overall plan.

Captain Gilligan commands a central communications center at Salem Police Headquarters to coordinate on anything that requires broader control and coordination.

Coordination and Training

For Halloween, Salem relies on neighboring departments throughout northeastern Massachusetts and the county sheriff’s department to field a force sufficient to discourage problems. All outside personnel work under the supervision of Salem commanders. They train together on everything they need to fulfill the mission, including how to communicate successfully with civilians on the street and how to respond effectively to every tactical contingency.

On occasion, a few personnel working in someone else’s jurisdiction see it as an opportunity to become a little aggressive. Salem and its partners have used sound training and supervision to keep that impulse out of the system. The Salem News reported last year, “Scores of police officers from departments across the area were brought in to handle the revelers, a sort of police all-star event with everyone playing on the same Halloween team.” 

The SPD uses Robert Peel’s ninth principle as a yardstick. “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

Does the plan succeed by that standard? Visitors say yes. Deanna Benfante of New York City came to town on Halloween night 2010 with what she called “the world’s largest Harry Potter group.” Ms. Benfante told The Salem News, “I love Salem. This is our third time here. One of our group is thinking of moving here. I’m waiting to hit the lottery so I can build a house here. It’s a magical place.”

Jim Jordan,
Independent consultant and educator,
Former Strategic Planning Director Boston Police Department


1 With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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