SALEM - The evening started off low-key: Tourists dressed as Harry Potter characters, Raggedy Ann dolls, and the like mingled with parents guiding their sugar-filled kids through the streets of Halloween central. Then the clock chimed 9 and the crowd got frisky.
Some of the costumes were risque, and some of the antics raunchy. Halloween central morphed into "Spooky World."
Not an easy thing to control, according to local law enforcement officers who patrolled the crowd of about 75,000 Wednesday on foot, bike, motorcycle, and scooter. More than 200 officers - many from neighboring municipalities - stood at the ready to break up fights and confiscate people's weaponlike costume accessories.
In all, 21 people were arrested that night, 14 related to the festivities - and mostly for disorderly conduct and drinking in public, police said. That's half the number of arrests made last year at Halloween. The most serious incidents of the night - two stabbings at 11:30 p.m. and a midnight shooting - took place outside the downtown celebration.
"It's a fun night until about 9 o'clock, when all the families go home, and all that's left is the rowdy bunch," said Salem police Lieutenant Conrad J. Prosniewski. He called his team together at 5 p.m. near the Salem Common to dole out patrol assignments and advice on crowd control.
"There's a lot of authentic costumes out there. . . . If somebody's carrying a battle ax, a soldier carrying a rifle - if it looks real, it gets confiscated," Prosniewski said. "The main thing here, folks, is just to make sure that the families have fun . . . try to keep those burly, drunken inebriates from the rest of the crew."
Salem police Sergeant Harry Rocheville and Officer Marc Berube started the evening off easy, rolling through the crowd on Essex Street on scooters. Every few feet, they stopped to pose for photos, hand out glow sticks, and answer the oft-asked question, "How fast do these things go?"
"We've taken about, no lie, 500 pictures," Berube said, before answering a guy who wanted to know about the scooter's top speed (about 20 miles per hour).
"When you're trying to get to a call and everyone's trying to stop you to talk about it, it's like . . .," he said as he waved his hand in a hurry-up motion.
Patrolmen Phil Verrette and Kevin Gillan were a little less visible as they moved through the crowd on foot.
"It's kind of quiet now," Gillan said at around 6:30. "A lot of the problems come . . . when it's time to leave."
Wednesday night was a change of pace for both men, who usually do their policing from a patrol car. That's not possible on Halloween, when revelers roam through streets blocked off to motor traffic.
"It's fun," Gillan said of being on foot. "It's one night and the only thing you fear is that things can get ugly out here. . . . They're in masks, they're in costumes, they've been drinking."
People occasionally stopped the officers to ask for directions, but not much else. Sometimes, there was some ribbing.
Down the street, a woman called out: "Nice costumes, guys!"
"Oh, you like these?" Verrette replied good-naturedly, adding in an aside: "That'll be heard at least 30 times tonight by each person" on patrol.
By 8:20 p.m., cops had five unconfirmed arrests and had confiscated only one large walking stick, Prosniewski said. There were some alerts about a "box truck with a bomb," but nothing came of the information.
Police were preparing to shut down the revelry at 9:55 and herd the crowd toward a fireworks display, to the train station, and out of town.
"The plan, boys, when the fireworks are over: No one comes this way," Salem police Officer Rob Phelan told his peers gathered in a line on Washington Street just before a the fireworks finale at 10:30 p.m.
Fights broke out shortly after, as some revelers, whose inhibitions had been lowered by the fun, libations, and the anonymity afforded by their costumes, let loose. Bike cops broke up a fistfight between two young men. A pair of officers prevented a mock fight between Spider-Man and his nemesis, Venom, from getting out of control.
"This is our aggravation time," Gillan said as he steered the masses out of town. "Fireworks done, you go home."
The crowds grumbled, but most took the herding good-naturedly. "To be honest with you, I kind of like it," 19-year-old Sean Desmond of Santa Monica, Calif., said of the strategy for breaking up the party. He and his friends had just been told they could not cut through the downtown area to get back to their car. "These guys are doing a tough job."
Erin Ailworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.