If you knew Provincetown any time from 1970 to 1992, you knew the name James J. “Jimmy” Meads Sr. (1933-2011). Meads was the chief of police for 22 years and — as the saying goes — he was nobody’s sweetheart. Rather, he was “known for his firm hand in law enforcement,” Mary Ann Bragg wrote in The Cape Cod Times. (“Former Longtime Provincetown Police Chief Dies,” 27 December 2011.) This house, constructed around 1850, was the Meads family home during much of his tenure at the Police Department and into retirement from the force, which he had served since 1960.
Before the Meads family, 5 Dyer Street had been home to Ferdinand Salvador (±1883-1957) and Mary Jesus (Lopes) Salvador, beginning in 1934. A native of Olhao, Portugal, Salvador had moved to Provincetown in about 1908. He worked for many years as a dory fisherman before joining the crew of the dragger Shirley & Roland, under the command of his son Louis A. Salvador. The Salvadors sold the house to the Meads family in 1963 for $10,000.
James Meads assumed command of the Provincetown department at a low point generally in American policing. Police forces around the country were being asked increasingly to serve on an almost warlike footing, facing demonstrations and civil uprisings whose intensity grew during the 1960s. Officers’ reactions sometimes inflamed situations rather than quieting them; most infamously during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, when protesters’ provocations sparked what was later called a “police riot.”
Meads sought to build a solid, professional police force by recruiting local military veterans like Paul Mendes, who was his first hire in March 1970. “Ptown is a very difficult town to police,” Mendes, a retired sergeant, told me in 2012, “and having officers that grew up here made a big difference.”
Allan Souza, a retired sergeant, described Meads to The Cape Cod Times: “He was no-nonsense, like, ‘This is how it will be done,’ and there was really no discussion. He was what they call a strong chief. He ran the department solely. He made his own decisions. If he needed something, he knew how to get it. He would do his research. He would go to town meeting or to the selectmen, with facts, and most of the time he got what he needed for the department.”
Of course, militaristic spit-and-polish is not everyone’s style of community policing. Yet Meads demonstrated time and again that he was ultimately more concerned about keeping the peace than strictly enforcing every law. The two aren’t always coterminous.
Faced with a rampant drug trade, for instance, Meads was said to be capable of turning an occasional blind eye. Distinctions could be made. After all, how hard should the law land on a local fisherman supplementing his income by off-loading drug shipments, much as his grandfather had whisked cases of liquor ashore during Prohibition? “Jimmy Meads might have known so-and-so was doing drugs,” an anonymous police veteran told Peter Manso for his book Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape (2002), “but he probably wouldn’t go out of his way to bust him unless it was a situation that had to be taken care of right away — like it was too obvious or people complained.”
“Without question,” Manso wrote, “Chief Meads knew how to take the long view of things, and the town was smart enough in those days to give him a free hand.”
A constant source of tension between live-and-let-live policing and the maintenance of public safety was the scene outside Spiritus Pizza, 190 Commercial, where bar patrons customarily gathered after the 1 a.m. closing hour. Of an early summer morning, Commercial Street could grow so crowded as to be impassable for motorists and emergency vehicles. Making things tenser yet, the crowd was largely gay. Those who couldn’t get through, or neighbors who couldn’t get sleep, or homeowners who couldn’t keep their front yards litter-free or parents who feared their boys were being ogled — these were local residents who were already feeling alienated from their native town, aggrieved that control had seemingly slipped into the hands of well-to-do and ill-behaved outsiders. For their part, gay residents and visitors openly suspected that Meads and his officers weren’t being nearly vigilant enough in prosecuting cases of anti-gay bias or preventing instances of “fag bashing.”
“While other communities might never allow their main street to be blocked on a nightly basis for basically a happening sort of pick-up party, Provincetown did,” Sue Harrison, the former arts editor of The Banner, told me in 2012. “But sometimes there were push-backs. Sometimes the cops just watched and did little. Other times they tried to keep a passage clear on the street. That night seemed to be a collision of high spirits combined with push-back that just passed the tipping point.”
“That” night was Friday, 15 August 1986, when uniformed officers appeared for the first time in the crowd, by prior arrangement with John Yingling, the proprietor of Spiritus, to rein in the free-flowing street party. What had been acceptable comportment the night before suddenly put bystanders at risk of arrest. Indeed, by the end of the evening, six persons had been charged with rude and disorderly behavior and with obstructing traffic. There was an uproar in the gay community, and a feeling of indignation that their night spot was being targeted by the police, while equally rowdy scenes were tolerated elsewhere in town. The next night, more than 1,000 people demonstrated in front of Spiritus. Meads called for reinforcements: 10 state troopers with two dogs on Saturday night, when two more persons were arrested, and 12 troopers on Sunday night, when one more person was arrested, making a total of nine for the weekend. “What was basically a neighborhood problem has somehow become a civil-rights problems,” Selectman Mary-Jo Avellar told The Cape Cod Times. (She had used much stronger language in private with Chief Meads during an emergency meeting on Saturday afternoon, when she told him that he should “not use Gestapo tactics” in handling the crowd that was expected later that day.)
For his part, Chief Meads insisted that the patrol presence was “not a gay issue,” but one of civil order and public safety. “We went down to meet alleged violence,” he told The Times. “These were out-of-towners, young kids, taunting the hell out of everybody.” Fire Chief James F. Meads Sr. told the selectmen that the Spiritus crowd posed an obstacle to the movement of emergency vehicles. And, yes, both the Fire and Police Departments were simultaneously commanded by one James Meads or another. The mnemonic for distinguishing them was the middle initial: F. for fire, J. for jail.
I wasn’t around and can’t presume to judge the situation from what little I know. However, it does strike me that — given the fissures in Provincetown society during the decades Meads ran the police — it may be a measure of his success that the “Spiritus Riot” of 1986 was the single most traumatic instance of civil unrest in that time and that the total number of those arrested during the melee (even if the arrests themselves were unwarranted) could be counted on the fingers of two hands.
In any case, at the time of his death in 2011, Meads was remembered equally for his years of leadership at Lower Cape Ambulance, which transports about 1,000 patients annually from Provincetown and Truro to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. He was its chief executive officer for 42 years. That’s almost twice as long as he was Provincetown’s police chief.