While America waits for answers in the investigation of the Boston bombing, law enforcement special-event planners are asking themselves what could have been done to prevent the incident. The answer to that question is, unfortunately, not an easy one.
The first line of defense against terrorism is our nation’s worldwide intelligence apparatus. But at the practical level, security planning for special events represents a far more fundamental exercise. While threat assessments based on intelligence sources are the foundation of any plan, each event requires its own, unique plan. A certain level of security appropriate for one event may not be appropriate for another.
Parades, marathons, open-air festivals and similar events are intended to be inclusive of the audience. They are times of fun and celebration. Concerns generally center on what have historically been referred to as fire-life-safety issues. Overcrowding, evacuation, medical emergencies, public hygiene and traffic flow generally take precedent over security issues.
Sporting events are similar, but for a variety of reasons, security is more restrictive.
Events such as the public visit of a head of state take on an entirely different flavor and represent a far more elevated level of security.
A private event requires a different and more flexible plan than does a public event. For example, the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, for which I was the city’s primary security planner, was a private, ticketed event even though it had a huge effect on public safety. In planning for this event, we were able to be more or less aggressive as needed. Security was applied in concentric circles and varied layers. Operations varied with different functions and at different times. The plan contracted and expanded to meet the relevant threat assessment. The greatest level of security was applied only when Vice President Al Gore was in attendance. The personal freedom of those in attendance was not as much a concern as it would have been at a public event.
Contrast that with the concerns for security outside the convention. Well before the event, special interest groups petitioned to be part of the planning process. After a hearing in federal court, the judge directed the plan to be modified to accommodate certain First Amendment issues in the public areas outside the convention center. In this case, we see where third parties can have an effect on security planning.
It’s this example that best illustrates the difficulties in security planning for public events in America: The Constitution of the United States has as much a part in security planning as anything else. As well it should.
Contemporary plans for public events are built as much around our personal liberties as they are around security measures. Few of us want to endure Transportation Security Administration airport procedures at sporting events. So as long as plans for these events indulge several of our basic freedoms, absolute security at events such as the Boston Marathon will never be attained.
One of the ways in which law-enforcement attempts to gain an advantage is through the use of technology. Technology is both a force multiplier and an investigative tool. We would be less safe without it.
The problem is that today’s technology invades our privacy and collects data. Some unknown bureaucrat sits hidden somewhere ready to click the mouse. And that makes many Americans uncomfortable. Even though we now see how critical technology was in the Boston case, its use has reignited the discussion about just how invasive technology should be in our everyday lives. Should it be used more widely as we see in other countries? Should it be used merely as a tactical tool, or a strategic one?
Technology aside, there is no such thing as a completely secure environment given the manner in which we plan for special events today. Unless we deploy overwhelming resources and treat people at public events as we do in airports, the biggest threat will always be an individual or a small group that comes to a peaceful event with the means to commit an act of terror.
I remember very clearly the day we discovered a man carrying a pistol at an open air event for then-Vice President George H. W. Bush during his campaign for the presidency. Had it not been for two very alert officers who saw a bulge under the man’s shirt, who knows what would have happened? Yet despite this little noticed incident, about 3,000 Americans were able to attend an event and see their vice president in person. Some were even able to shake his hand and pose for pictures. In how many other countries does that happen?
While the American way in these matters may seem weak to some, others say it shows that we hold our freedoms to be more important than our safety. And that, it seems to me, is the very essence of our nation’s strength.
Tom Lorenzen is a retired Los Angeles police commander living in Durango. He has served as the primary security planner for many presidential visits, the visit of Pope John Paul, and dozens of other special events in and around Los Angeles. He has testified before Congress as an expert in law enforcement special operations. Reach him at TWLorenzen@aol.com.