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Police command center helps keep peace on NASCAR race weekend in Loudon

The race was in its earliest laps yesterday afternoon as a group of police officers huddled around a table in the middle of a grass lot on Route 106. Loudon police Chief Robert Fiske was discussing afternoon assignments for officers from Alton, Tuftonboro, Bridgewater and elsewhere assisting in race weekend coverage at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Any police and traffic operations over the weekend are handled at the police command center, a trailer between the south and north entrances to the speedway. When thousands of visitors pour into Loudon, the six-officer staff at the Loudon Police Department call in assistance from across New Hampshire. With Fiske in charge, more than 100 officers from 35 departments work around the clock from Thursday to Sunday night, working traffic details and policing the camping sites around the speedway. The speedway pays to have the detail coverage, and Fiske said the police presence has improved safety in the last decade.

As of late yesterday afternoon, the police had taken two people into protective custody and one person had been charged with driving under the influence, Fiske said.

“There’s no question it’s gone down, and it’s because of the police presence,” Fiske said of criminal activity. “People know we’re around if they step out of line.”

Inside the command center yesterday, the scanner blipped with a report of a fender bender and a minor hit-and-run. Big crime hasn’t been an issue, Fiske said. Instead, the police focus on safety and keeping the peace.

“People are drinking and it’s a little hot out and they might get a little more inebriated than they probably should,” he said.

Sunday afternoon coverage focuses mainly on traffic and coordinating lane shifts on Route 106. Most of the operations are over by 10 p.m., Fiske said.

Coordinating the coverage takes months, Fiske said. The Loudon police contact departments from across the state gauging their availability months in advance. Once departments are confirmed, Fiske creates a list of hour-by-hour assignments for every officer.

“It’s a lot of responsibility and it’s a lot of liability,” he said. “It isn’t just this weekend. We’re dealing with this stuff months prior.”

Maps of Loudon and aerial photos of the racetrack line the walls of the small trailer. Live camera feeds from Route 106 intersections and the speedway grandstands continuously play on two computer monitors. Fiske spends almost the entire weekend in the trailer coordinating police coverage. When officers show up they are briefed on their assignment. “When they show up, they are given their marching orders and prepped as far as the function of the day,” Fiske said.

The police operations cover mostly criminal and traffic activity, Fiske said. There is a joint operations center in place in the event of an emergency, but the details of the center are kept private for safety reasons.

Fifteen years ago there wasn’t an assigned police detail for the race, Fiske said, and the speedway was developing a reputation for rowdiness. “There was virtually no police presence in the camping area,” he said. “After 9/11, we beefed up, and then we beefed it up a little bit more.”

The first year Fiske brought in 80 officers who made 95 arrests.

Arrest numbers have decreased in part because officers are advised to use discretion, Fiske said. The command post gives law enforcement a tangible presence at the site, Fiske said. “It’s relatively close to the track but it’s far enough away. We’ve got plenty of area here to stage people and plenty of area for new people coming in,” Fiske said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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