NEW LONDON – “Nobody got hurt.”
That was the bottom-line assessment Monday from the city’s mayor and other officials after the return of the 3-day Sailfest New London that drew thousands to the downtown waterfront amid public safety concerns due to police staffing issues and recent mass shootings across the country.
“With all this gun violence going on, I’m really proud that hundreds of thousands of people came out, got together safely and showed the world that we’re not scared, we’re not hiding,” Mayor Michael Passero said. “It was a great celebration for the city and it showed that we’re going to go on with our lives.”
The festival, which includes a parade of ships on the Thames River, a huge fireworks display, amusement rides, entertainment, and street vendors, began in 1972 and had been canceled the last two years due to the COVID pandemic.
But beyond the extraordinarily low number of arrests — just three unruly spectators over the weekend — a debate continued Monday over the size of the crowd as details emerged of possible threats of violence and how police dealt with them.
The police officers’ union in April had urged the event be called off due to understaffing that it warned would make holding it “reckless and dangerous.”
Monday, the union’s president said a spate of five shootings including a homicide in the city in the 24 hours before the event involving young suspected gang members from the city and Norwich prompted police to employ an intensive strategy to head off any incidents.
“There was some chatter on Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram that there was going to be a problem down here,” between the gangs, Sgt. Josh Bergeson said.
Coupled with information from Norwich police, the city department employed a specialist to monitor and analyze the online postings, he said, which enabled them to identify several of those involved when they showed up to the event for the Saturday night fireworks – easily the biggest draw of the weekend.
“When they came downtown we just basically had our cops follow them around, talk to them and watch them the entire time,” Bergeson said. “It was basically to make them feel uncomfortable so there were no issues.”
Another highly-visible tactic was to have nearly ten officers patrol the crowd carrying assault-type AR-15 rifles – the first time that has ever been done at the event – and position one on a rooftop overlooking the venue.
“The rifles make a statement that we’re not playing games – we’re there for a purpose,” Bergeson said. “And the whole active-shooter aspect of it is that most of them wear body armor and handguns don’t work against body armor.”
Bergeson said it appeared that the majority of the crowd approved of the show of force.
“It was a lot better received by the public than we thought it was going to be,” he said. “But you know, it’s the same thing people see when they go to a Red Sox or Yankees game.”
The strategy, he said, also helped counter a staffing issue that has seen the department decrease from about 75 officers a few years ago to its current level of about 60.
The city force was assisted at Sailfest by about 25 state and federal agencies including the FBI, the federal Dept. of Homeland Security, Amtrak police, the U.S Coast Guard and Navy and a number of area police and fire departments.
“There was no lack of police presence,” said Barbara Neff, the event’s organizer and executive director of the Downtown New London Association, noting that the collaboration with the array of other agencies has been done every year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. ”We’ve been doing it this way for over 20 years – we just don’t advertise it.”
Neff and other officials acknowledged that crowds were lighter than usual this year – at least partially attributed to the fear of violence.
City police Chief Brian Wright said more than 100,000 attended over the three days, which would be about a third of the typical level.
Bergeson estimated that only about 50,000 were at the Saturday fireworks, which is about half of normal.
Passero called Bergeson’s assessment “ridiculous.”
“I was there for the fireworks and the crowd was the same as I always remember,” he said. “It was shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Neff also disagreed with Bergeson.
“I talked to our vendors who come every year and they all agreed that the Saturday crowd came in a little late, but no way was it in half,” she said. “We were actually pleasantly surprised about how many people and families came out.”
Neff said that while attendance and the event offerings may not have matched the usual levels, bringing it back after a two-year hiatus was an unqualified success.
“We do the event for our community and the Downtown New London Association – not to make money,” she said. “In fact, we may have lost money this year. But the point was to celebrate our community and that’s exactly what we did this weekend.”