Island Public Safety Heads Decry Large Scale Events

Photo by George Riethof

Nantucket’s public safety leaders forcefully decried the island’s large summer events on Tuesday, saying publicly that they have grown too big, pose unnecessary risks, and that their departments simply do not have the staffing required to allow them to continue in the same manner.

“We sort of did this to ourselves but somehow we need to undo it,” Nantucket Police Lt. Angus MacVicar told the town’s Visitor Services Advisory Committee yesterday. “That’s going to be a hard couple of years ahead of us to tell them that, but that’s what needs to be done. We can tell them about our lack of staff, but that’s only part of the problem. I think we just admit that we let it get too big and we now gotta get it back under control.”

The island’s police and fire chiefs specifically called out the Boston Pops on Nantucket – typically the largest event each summer that is Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s primary fundraiser – along with the town-sponsored Fourth of July events on Main Street and the Nantucket Wine Festival, as being unmanageable from a public safety perspective. 

“We’ve been doing more with less on this island for a long time, and we’re about ready to break,” Nantucket Fire Chief Steve Murphy said. “We’re reaching the point of critical mass that, it’s only one thing away. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t thinking about worst case scenarios. So what happens if there’s that one event that produces a lot of injuries or a mass panic that produces a lot of people stampeding?”

Police Chief Bill Pittman said the issues are multifaceted. A lack of full-time sworn officers for traffic control and to work details at the events is part of the problem, along with declining interest in the department’s Community Resource Officer (previously known as summer special officer) program. But there are also unique challenges with the events themselves, Pittman said, mentioning the behavior of the private security teams hired by the hospital to provide services at the Boston Pops on Nantucket concert each August as an example.

“The (private) security are on the first boat out as soon as the Pops are done, even before they’re done in our experience, and we’ve got three police officers standing down there now, scratching their heads going what are we going to do with 8,000 people as they stream out of this venue?” Pittman said. “And what about the 800 that are going to stay at the after party and continue to drink and get stupid drunk and have to deal with that? That’s become, really, for lack of a better term, a shitshow after the Pops. That’s why the police officers no longer are wanting to work that type of event. This year they flat said ‘we’re not doing it, chief. We’re just not doing it’.”

Pittman said he had suggested moving the location of the Boston Pops on Nantucket concert to Tom Nevers, a location that would require far fewer public safety resources than Jetties Beach. 

Fire Chief Murphy also cited the resources demanded by an event like the Pops when there are upwards of 8,000 people at Jetties Beach, requiring the fire department to station an ambulance, a fire engine, plus an additional unit for the fireworks. 

“We’re putting almost a third, probably better than a third, of our people at one singular event,” Murphy said. “Now that one singular event is important, but how much more important is it than protecting the rest of the island?”

The remarks by the island’s public safety leaders came just days ahead of a planned Select Board workshop at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, August 10 to discuss the feasibility of large events on the island. Town Manager Libby Gibson has asked the town’s Visitor Services Advisory Committee to consider providing feedback and recommendations to the board for the meeting. The workshop will be held a few days before the original date of the 2021 Boston Pops on Nantucket, which was cancelled for the second year in a row. While COVID-19 cancelled the Pops concert last summer, it’s the lack of town public safety personnel that forced the cancellation this year. 

The Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce recently voted to weigh-in on the matter, and plans to emphasize the importance of large events for island non-profits like Nantucket Cottage Hospital, as well as the positive economic impacts they provide to businesses in a letter being drafted to the Select Board. Nantucket Cottage Hospital itself declined to comment.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Pittman went deeper into the underlying issues his department is facing and how that impacts the town’s ability to safely permit and patrol large scale events. He asserted that the ongoing police reforms in Massachusetts and across the country are having a significant impact on his department’s ability to recruit new officers and summer staff. 

“The nationwide revision of policing in America has had a dramatic effect on the ability of law enforcement agencies to hire personnel,” Pittman said. “Hiring the CSOs (community resource officers) this year, we literally hired everyone who submitted an application and we only got 20 that came in the door. When you lower your standards for the lowest position in the organization, you know you’ve got some big problems ahead of you and we’ve experienced those problems all summer long. I don’t see that phenomenon changing. We did more outreach this year than we’ve ever done before. Typically we have 100 applications for 40 positions, for CSOs. This year we had 20 applications. We reached out to these colleges and universities and most were closing down their criminal justice programs because their students are transferring out of those programs. The future of law enforcement in America is really grim, in my opinion.”

It wasn’t just the Boston Pops on Nantucket that was in Pittman’s crosshairs on Tuesday. The Nantucket Wine Festival was also on the hot seat. The annual event in May used to be pretty laid back, Pittman said, but in recent years it’s gotten bigger, more commercial, and “by noon we’re dealing with drunks walking the streets of Nantucket.” 

Pittman said his officers have observed attendees being over-served and he criticized event organizers for putting volunteers in place at the entrance to the tents who simply get overwhelmed and quit, leaving the door to the festival wide open. 

“We’ve talked to them year after year after year and it just gets worse and worse and worse,” Pittman said. “The best year for the Wine Festival was this last year. And that’s because we didn’t have it. That was the best May we’ve had on Nantucket I think. And it seems to me, the island was just as busy without the Wine Festival as it was with the Wine Festival.”

And while it is one of the town’s own signature events, the Fourth of July activities on Main Street, in particular the water fight involving the Nantucket Fire Department, was not spared on Tuesday. 

“The amount of people that are there, the amount of little kids running around, the web cobblestones,” Murphy said. “It’s always scared the hell out of me for the past 10 years being involved at a higher level that a kid is going to fall and hit their head. We really need to rethink and reimagine that whole event so that we’re doing it in a safer place and in a safer way.”

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