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Some spectators were unruly at War Memorial Park

July 06, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Tempers popped off faster than the fireworks at War Memorial Park in Martinsburg on Thursday as numerous fights broke out among thousands of spectators celebrating the nation's birthday.

Two juveniles were arrested and other combatants were escorted from the park, Martinsburg Police said.

The traditional nighttime fireworks display was halted while order was restored.

The annual salute to independence should have been meaningful after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but it was ruined by "punks" who caused "grief and terror," said State Sen. John Unger, D-Martinsburg.

Unger, who was at the park, questioned whether the Martinsburg Police Department was caught shorthanded and off-guard. The city has emergency plans for all kinds of disasters, including a nuclear attack, but didn't seem ready for hooligans, he said.

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"It was chaos for a while," said Berkeley County Sheriff W. Randy Smith, who was also at the park.

Smith said he and Martinsburg Police Sgt. Shannon Armel tried to break up fights, but more of them "just blossomed."

"This was just like bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. It was more than we could handle ...," Smith said. "We had five going on in front of us."

Unger said he was surprised to learn that six city police officers were assigned to the park - the same number as last year - despite nationwide security concerns about potential terrorism.

"When the fights broke out, they were overwhelmed," Unger said.

Martinsburg Police Chief Ted Anderson said Berkeley County reserve deputies and Martinsburg Police Explorers assisted city police at the park throughout the afternoon and evening.

When trouble erupted, other city police officers, Berkeley County sheriff's deputies and West Virginia state troopers were called to help, Anderson said.

Unger said fighting broke out just before 10 p.m.

Police decided to halt the fireworks, which had started several minutes earlier. That was the safest thing to do, Anderson said.

Smith said part of the park was filled with smoke, making it more difficult to control the fights.

The crowd didn't know what was going on. Unger said he assumed the fireworks show was short and "terrible" - until he saw people running for cover from the fighting, then police officers stepping in.

The Martinsburg Police Department said the fireworks were stopped for about 20 minutes, but Unger said it was more like 30 or 40 minutes.

When the fighting ceased, the fireworks show started up again.

Anderson said Friday that he had no details on the arrests, other than that two juveniles were either fighting or disorderly.

"As well as you try to police them ... there's always the possibility that something could break out," he said.

Several people who created problems were ejected instead of arrested. The police couldn't afford to have officers leave the park and go to the police station, Unger said. Still, he questioned why only two people were arrested.

Anderson said heat may have been a factor in the rowdiness, along with people sneaking alcohol into the park, where it is banned.

Unger said those conditions have been present in the past, too, but have never resulted in out-of-control fights.

He offered some suggestions for next July 4: Use a large vehicle with portable holding cells, allowing police to arrest people on the spot; enhance the K-9 patrol; and close portions of the park before the fireworks begin.

Anderson had other ideas, such as assigning plainclothes officers, especially near the entertainment stage, and forcing people to enter the park through a fenced-in area, which could help police spot known troublemakers.

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