Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford stands atop a storefront balcony with a rifle overlooking the town's tree lighting ceremony Friday. Credit: Bob Dennis | York County Coast Star

While hundreds of people wearing holiday hats, lighted necklaces and blinking reindeer noses filed into Dock Square Friday evening for the iconic annual tree lighting, Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford stood sentry atop a storefront balcony where he had the best view of the swelling crowd below.

While his officers and those from neighboring Kennebunk blocked off roads and redirected traffic, Sanford used his aerial post to intently survey the crowd, ready to radio information to officers on the ground. He was armed with a rifle and ready to protect against any unthinkable threat.

This is the first year Sanford has added this layer of protection during Prelude, and he said it’s in response to the changing world we live in today.

“I don’t see Prelude like everyone else does,” Sanford said. “I can’t. The world is a different place now and we have to adapt and change. I fight hard here because I think we have to be wise and make changes where we can. Ultimately, we have to pull off a safe event.”

Kennebunk Police Chief Bob MacKenzie said his department has reacted similarly when planning for outdoor events and parades.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to think like this, but we do. Things could happen. We’re not immune here,” MacKenzie said.

“We pre-plan and we say what could happen, and what can we do. We take contemporary safety measures, and we’ve implemented some new strategies as a result,” MacKenzie said.

Both police chiefs were hesitant to be specific for two reasons. They want to maintain an upper-hand against threats, and they want to make sure that people who attend the events are there simply enjoying themselves.

Wells Police Chief Jo-Ann Putnam agreed.

“We want people to go and enjoy themselves and feel safe. It’s important to not make people panic. We just need to vigilant,” Putnam said.

The town of Wells will host its annual 32nd annual Christmas Parade Sunday, Dec. 10. A parade, Putnam said, presents different challenges for law enforcement.

“A parade is tough because it’s so spread out and we don’t have the personnel to cover the whole route,” Putnam said.

She said her staff is diligent about thoroughly checking out any concerns ahead of time and watching along the route carefully.

“I lead the parade so nobody is going to get by me,” Putnam said.

Where there used to be just one police cruiser bringing up the rear of the parade, Putnam now stretches three across to block anyone from getting through from the back.

The parade takes place on a short stretch of busy Route 1 that’s shut down during the event, so they make sure there are detours for motorists wherever possible. She said road rage from impatient motorists is a very real threat they have to protect against.

MacKenzie said he’s heard mostly appreciative comments from people about the work his and other departments do.

“I do hear comments from people, and they really are appreciative. We want people to enjoy themselves, and we want them to be conscientious, but we also want them to know that we’re there to keep them safe,” MacKenzie said.

In recent months vehicles have been used as weapons in a deadly trend that law enforcement officials are responding to as best they can. Public works vehicles and fire trucks have replaced barricades and cones to close off roads and block major access points to large outdoor gatherings.

And those access points are being pushed back to create a buffer between crowds and vehicle traffic.

“We meet with Kennebunk and the fire departments, and we place equipment in strategic locations. We look at it every year,” Sanford said.

It’s a sleepless two weeks for Sanford, as the town of roughly 3,500 swells tenfold or more during Christmas Prelude. He’ll put in 60-plus hour weeks, and the days and nights are non-stop for everyone on duty.

“I get worried, it’s a small area, and if something bad happens in the middle of that, there are only a couple of ways out. My first year here we had a child go missing, and even in uniform I got grief from people, and I had trouble getting through the crowd to where I needed to be,” Sanford said.

He said it’s all hands on deck during Prelude. Sanford brings the entire department in at least three times over the course of the two weeks, where they discuss how things are going, and make any changes that are needed.

While most people simply see the beauty and merriment in the festivities, there are always issues for law enforcement to deal with.

“Last year was a busy one for us,” Sanford said. “I’m hoping it’s quieter this year.”

Safety tips

All three chiefs had tips for people to help themselves stay safe at large events.

Sanford urged people to have a plan and an exit to get out, wherever they are.

“Whether you’re at the mall or at Prelude, know your surroundings and have a plan,” he said.

MacKenzie said people should also have a meeting place.

“If something chaotic were to happen, it’s easy for people to get separated. Plan a meeting spot where you can find each other.”

Putnam said the adage “see something, say something” applies now more than ever.

“If you see something that’s truly out of the ordinary, please let someone know. Our job is to check these things out, we’re trained to do that. We can’t be everywhere, so we need your eyes and ears to assist us in our job,” Putnam said. “Let us do our work, while you go and enjoy yourselves.”

Sanford will breathe again when Prelude is over for another year, and he’ll be happy that so many were able to enjoy it.

“I’m really a nice guy,” he said. “I take this very seriously because I have to. It’s my job. It’s my responsibility. Ultimately I just want everyone to have a good time and be safe.”

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