Travers crowd keeps police hopping
Busiest night of year for Saratoga officers
SARATOGA SPRINGS By about 1 a.m., the crowds milling on Caroline Street barely cared about autos inching toward them down the narrow downtown street.
The thrumming from competing bands in the city’s bar district was quieter, as some establishments halted music to observe the downtown’s 1 a.m. weekend noise ordinance. But on the morning of Travers Day, the party was far from over.
“Now they’re starting to look drunk,” police Assistant Chief Chris Cole said as he cruised Caroline Street in an unmarked city car, wearing plain clothes and his badge.
Just two hours before, the street had an energetic feel, and people on the streets wore big smiles and laughed. “It’s almost like a Mardi Gras atmosphere,” Cole observed.
But by 1 a.m., most were more mellow and bleary-eyed — couples locked in hushed or silent dances, women wincing as they stepped in strappy too-tight shoes and men lumbering into the roadway without checking for passing vehicles.
“There’s been times when you can’t even drive down the street, the crowds get so big,” Cole said.
Most of the thousands of people at downtown bars and eating establishments Friday night were peaceful and law-abiding. But for the rest, 18 police officers were on duty to prevent crime and make arrests.
Accompanied for about three hours through early Saturday Cole offered a guided tour of downtown’s overnight and a flavor of the incidents police deal with on what is perhaps the busiest weekend of the year.
Police responded to 25 calls between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. in the downtown area on the night before the running of the Travers Stakes, including nine DWI patrol stops and several fight reports. They resulted in one drunk driving arrest, two disorderly conduct charges, a couple of harassment charges and two misdemeanor drug charges.
Many other people were given verbal warnings rather than being issued tickets or arrested. “Sometimes if it gets too busy, we’ve got to start picking and choosing,” Cole explained.
For example, Cole stopped a man on Lake Avenue who was loudly cursing and slapped a street sign after getting in a fight with his girlfriend over the phone. After running a file check on the Massachusetts man to see if he was wanted on any warrants, Cole gave him a warning and let him go on his way.
“Could he be arrested for disorderly conduct? Yes,” Cole said. But arresting the man would tie up officers from responding to other, possibly more serious complaints.
And officers predicted that Saturday night would be even busier.
“They’re drinking at the track all day for Travers, and then they come downtown and drink,” said officer Lloyd Davis. “They’ve been drinking for 12 plus hours, and that’s not a good combination.”
During busy summer nights, officers scheduled to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift often continue until 5 a.m. to assist the overnight shift with the activity. “Obviously, it can get very difficult and tiring dealing with the people you’re dealing with,” Cole said.
A normal night would have six to eight uniformed police officers on shift, and on busy summer nights — all weekends and some Wednesday and Thursday nights as well — between seven and 10 additional officers can be called in to work. The department employs 71 sworn police officers.
The extra hours also mean officers rack up overtime, which taxpayers and some city officials would like to see decrease.
But Cole said the department doesn’t feel comfortable staffing at less than the current levels on busy nights, since one incident like a large fight or assault can tie up multiple officers for a few hours at a time to question suspects and witnesses and process arrestees.
Preventative policing is the department’s focus during these nights, Cole noted. So officers on foot, bicycle, horseback and in patrol cars have a presence in busy areas such as Caroline Street, Broadway and at the bars near Saratoga Race Course.
A drunken crowd can become violent at a moment’s notice, he cautions. “It can turn on a dime.”
The Horseshoe and Siro’s near the track are increasingly popular with people who stop there after the races end and stay for hours.
About 11:30 p.m. Friday, the Horseshoe’s parking lot was packed with cars, and people milled around outside.
A short distance away, a young woman standing with a group in the road playfully stuck out her fanny at the headlights of Cole’s undercover city vehicle. He pulled up alongside her.
“How you doing, ladies?” he asked. The woman was obviously intoxicated, slurring her speech as she half-heartedly apologized and slapping the car’s back window as Cole drove away.
“We have to keep officers over here, which takes officers away from the downtown area,” Cole said.
The department’s two horse-mounted officers and their vantage point help with crowd control, breaking up fights and preventing crime.
Officer Glenn Barrett and Lt. Michael Chowske are trained to ride standardbred Jupiter and Percheron King Tut. Each horse and officer take shifts, and normally can handle an eight-hour day.
Mounted officers have an advantage when dealing with unruly people because of the horses’ size, Barrett said. “It gets people’s attention.”
On Friday night, Jupiter plodded along at Barrett’s direction and stood guard on Caroline Street, looking consistently calm even when dogs barked at him during a Broadway vehicle stop.
But when a man police were questioning on Caroline Street in connection with an assault report ran from officers, Jupiter showed his colors as a former harness racer.
The gelding flew down Caroline Street with Barrett aboard, where officers in cars also headed to catch the man.
Not everyone is intimidated by the horse.
Early Saturday, police arrested a man for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after officers said he pushed standardbred horse Jupiter several times on Caroline Street and then swore at officers.