Commercial sporting events, pre-equipped with large crowds and widespread media coverage, have become a popular venue for First Amendment expression. As interest groups begin to see the advantage of staging a public protest in someone else's spotlight, events officials as well as law enforcement have their work cut out trying to maintain their grasp on peace and safety, while at the same time being careful not to tread on constitutional rights. With an eye toward planned demonstrations, as well as other, more predictable disturbances, security teams are pursuing tactics such as looking further ahead, keeping in close communications with law enforcement and attempting to prepare for every possible disruption.
CAROUSING IN THE STREETS
At the University of Kentucky, chief of campus police Joe Monroe says large civil disturbances have become almost routine. In the city of Lexington, the average unofficial large-crowd gathering comes during a successful basketball season. "We usually are prepared and plan for that almost on an annual basis in March and April," he says. "That's something we've become accustomed to and can usually anticipate.
"A lot of times you'll have several thousand people who will gather, either on the edge of campus or at a local street that has a lot of bars that promote watching the game. Some of them put it on large screens in their parking lots. So, that presents a challenge. About a block off campus, across from a hospital, is another area that will have several thousand people gather to celebrate the game. And that presents a challenge because it's residential, even though it's a student residential area."
And the challenge areas are growing.
"As parts of the area have grown," says Monroe, "our bar area has gone through an invigoration, and new businesses have come in, drawing more people to it, as well as the residential areas becoming less and less residential and more and more university-owned by businesses and operations of the university. As the university expands into these areas, it stretches us into a thinner force and we have to bring in some of our community safety partners to ensure adequate staff is on hand. That's where it requires a great partnership, to work through those challenges."
According to Monroe, preparing for a large, unofficial and potentially disruptive event requires a lot of meetings with internal stakeholders, including facilities management personnel, construction crews or grounds maintenance professionals, as well as external safety partners.
"We work very closely with all our public safety partners, whether it's city fire or police, EMS, jail staff or our sheriff's department," Monroe says. "Since this is something we've been able to anticipate happening, we've started developing after-action reports based on the history of these events. That enables us to share the lessons learned with everybody on our team, internally and externally, so we can go back next year and make changes to make our response that much better."
But it's not only off-campus events that require a more focused response from gameday and security officials — the environment is changing inside the stadium, as well.
CHANGES AT THE GATE
"Things have changed drastically over the past few decades, and specifically over the past few years, dealing with gameday operational security," Monroe says. "Security planning for a major sporting event has become a major concern across the country, because now these areas are looked at as possible soft targets. I mean, you look at what happened at that Vikings game, where those two guys were able to rappel and hang their banner for most of the game up there. These kind of security issues present different challenges."
According to Monroe, the University of Kentucky is meeting these challenges move-for-move with an ever-more-advanced screening system for fans coming through the gates at Rupp Arena. "We started three years ago in this process," he says. "In year one, we had the fans take off their outer garments, and we would inspect the garments as they came through. Year two, we went to taking off the outer garment, having it screened, and then doing wanding. Then year three was actually doing walk-through magnetometers. And then we added in a visual inspection. Before they even get to the magnetometers, we have personnel looking for specific behavioral characteristics."
One of the biggest challenges of implementing a visual inspection policy is meeting the need for a larger task force. "You're going to need staffing, whether it's uniformed or un-uniformed, dedicated to doing that," Monroe says, "and then you've got to have a good supervisor who's making sure that they're not just walking around talking to each other, that they're actually out there looking for questionable or suspicious behavior."
When asked if he was concerned about the potential of an incident similar to what happened at Minnesota's U.S. Bank Stadium, Monroe says such a situation "probably wouldn't come up."
"For three or four of them to come in with that amount of equipment, even if it's winter time, they're going to have some bulky clothing, so that should've been a red flag that people who are doing behavioral analysis should've been able to detect early on," he says. "We make people take off their winter jackets or their heavy garments as they walk through the magnetometers, so that's just a policy or procedure that each individual site would have to think about."
As far as how fans are responding to the increased security measures, Monroe adds, "When we first implemented it, there were questions, you know, 'Why are you making me take my jacket off?'" By year two, however, people had visuals of the Paris attacks fresh in their minds. "We were doing the wanding and people started thanking us for taking the extra step," Monroe says. "Year three we've had no backlash whatsoever with the walk-through magnetometers. They actually prefer it; it's a little quicker. So, the response we've gotten has been positive for the most part."
Monroe isn't worried about adverse reactions to future changes, either. "One of the things I think you're going to see across the country in the next few years, as we start making changes to our everyday lifestyle that have been done overseas for quite some time, is that our population is going to become more and more immune to these new procedures," he says. "They'll come to expect them."
While the student body at the University of Kentucky might have assumed access to the streets to host large, unofficial gatherings, other athletics organizations have to rely on secondhand intelligence to inform them of potential security challenges.
Prior to the 2015 Twin Cities Marathon, event organizers for Twin Cities in Motion were notified of an impending protest through Facebook. "Nine days before the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, an announcement was made that the Black Lives Matter St. Paul group was going to go out at mile 25 on the course and interrupt the race," says Twin Cities in Motion executive director Virginia Brophy Achman. "Obviously runners were upset, the community leaders were upset, and there was a whole week of comments being made on social media. So, during that time we worked with the police to put safety protocols in place."
"By Thursday of race week, there was a meeting with Black Lives Matter St. Paul and the mayor, and there was an understanding that they would protest adjacent to the event, but not actually go out on the course and disrupt the event, as initially stated. Essentially, they did protest but they did not ever enter the course, so they were able to exercise their First Amendment right, and we were able to put on our event, and everyone had a safe day and a great day."
Social media has become a semi-reliable means for organizations to monitor the fan atmosphere as events approach. Regarding the advance warning Twin Cities in Motion gained via Facebook in 2015, Achman says, "We definitely monitored the chatter. We released our statement, saying, 'safety and security is our priority and we are working with city officials,' and we chose to let Black Lives Matter and the city interact, because the issue really wasn't about us. So, we just focused on getting ready for the race, and obviously paying attention to what was going on, but not responding."
Achman echoes Monroe when describing the organization's positive experience with local law enforcement, describing a mutually beneficial partnership. "We attended morning briefings on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We weren't privy to the specifics, other than that they were going to have a presence at the event."
And like Monroe, Achman asserts that event officials felt well-prepared for future events. "Safety is always a priority for us, so it was just business as usual. We're always thinking about how to keep the runners safe, and how to keep volunteers and spectators safe. We just did what we always do. We had a great day."
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Gameday Security with the title "Unplanned, but not unprepared: Detailing security for unofficial events"