A toddler on the shoulders of a parent says “police bus” as he passes the mobile command center for the Santa Barbara Police Department near the intersection of State and Cabrillo streets on the Fourth of July. 

Inside what looks more like a camper, police officers chuckle at the title before resuming the type of people watching they’re paid to do.

“Two more hours now,” one says as the clock strikes 7 p.m. and nears the fireworks send-off.

Six uniformed officers are in charge of patrolling West Beach and the Harbor on foot — an area that floods with more than 50,000 spectators throughout the holiday’s festivities.

Lower State Street and much of Cabrillo Boulevard close to traffic because of the influx.

Sgt. Riley Harwood says that 91 extra officers — some in civilian dress — are patrolling the celebration, which is fewer than last year’s more than 100 because several detectives are busy working on investigations.

This year’s workforce also lacks the typical ATV officer support, and will rely more on the Harbor Patrol’s help.

“It’s hard to police on foot in the sand,” Harwood says. “Officers can get lost out there.”

The group is working a 1 to 11 p.m. shift, and worries the coming darkness will spark mischief and ruin what’s otherwise been an uneventful day.

“It’s kind of like a pot of boiling water,” Officer Kent Wojciechoski says, noting peace as a nice simmer and violence as occasional bubbles. “We try to keep it calm, and get everyone home safe.”

The officers set out for another walk to the harbor about 7:30 p.m., remarking how much larger this year’s crowd looks than in past years.

Santa Barbara police officers talk with a citizen on Cabrillo Boulevard on Thursday afternoon, before the city’s Fourth of July celebration and fireworks display. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

They speak briefly with Detective Rashun Drayton, who plays motor cop for the day and drives up and down Cabrillo Boulevard creating a police presence.

“A lot of it is flag-downs,” says Drayton, who is working a 14-hour shift. “On a motorcycle, you’re a lot more mobile.”

As if on cue, officers receive their first fight call as darkness descends just before 8 p.m.

They confiscate and pour out an open can of beer — “What a waste” — before fielding several questions about parking, shuttles and fireworks from passers-by.

Strangers say “thank you” as they walk by, and some offer bad police jokes, the most popular of which, Harwood says, is sticking their arms up and yelling “I didn’t do it!”

Worse is when parents tell their children they must behave or the police will take them away — the opposite message he says law enforcement wants them to have.

Wojciechoski says he’s received at least 30 high fives. At 6-foot-9, he stands well above the rest of the crowd.

Officer Adrian Gutierrez jokes that the department should start charging for each picture someone stops to take with his tall colleague.

A call comes over the radio and sends officers to a dispute over parking at Sambo’s Restaurant.

A missing child call comes in moments later, along with a dispute over balcony space for watching the fireworks that has led to physical threats at Hotel Oceana.

East Beach officers are called to a disturbance at Rusty’s Pizza, while West Beach patrols confiscate illegal fireworks and give an official warning to the man who threw similar sparks into a crowd.

When all other heads turn to the sky just after 9 p.m. for fireworks, officers train their eyes to find who might not be watching the show.

Those are typically the ones who cause trouble, Harwood says, noting that someone was stabbed during the show three years ago.

Officers look to their watches as the show’s finale ends to applause and a general exodus.

“Now it gets ugly,” one of them says.

“Wanna mingle?” Wojciechoski says to Gutierrez after they see illegal fireworks go up near the beach.

Officers turn on lights that have been strategically placed where incidents have occurred during the shuffle before.

Five transients are fighting near East Beach, a radio call reports.

People ask the officers more questions — “We have a sign on our back that says ‘Information.’” — but, amazingly, the crowd clears the streets enough to reopen the roadways by 10 p.m.

Harwood and the other five officers move to the 600 block of State Street to monitor the Thursday bar scene.

The streets are quiet enough that the officers actually, and gratefully, clock out on time to join their own families for what remains of the holiday.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at gpotthoff@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.