How to keep crowds safe at large events

Increased security
A New York City police officer with the 78th Precinct patrolled outside the Barclays Center prior to a Brooklyn Nets basketball game on April 15, 2013. Police say they have stepped up security following explosions at the Boston Marathon that resulted in three deaths and more than 150 injuries.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon, security is being beefed up at sporting events across the country.

Read the post-show takeaway

High-profile sporting events occur frequently, but there has only been one other attack at such an event in the United States: the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

The planning that goes into providing security for major sporting events is time-consuming and expensive.

Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi, and Edward Connors, president of the Institute for Law and Justice, joined The Daily Circuit to discuss what it takes to keep large events safe.

THE TAKEAWAY: You can't put every backpack through a metal detector.

The conversation made clear that while it might be possible to make big public events safer, they can't be made safe.

"If someone asked a security director today what No. 1 thing keeps him up at night, and has since 9/11, it's some explosive incident," Marciani said. "Mainly vehicle-borne, actually, is probably our No. 1 concern, followed by either remote or suicide. So you pay attention to a marathon, you're looking at manholes, you're looking at garbage cans. ... "

"One of the difficulties with marathons is backpacks. I've been to several marathons, everybody has a backpack for some reason. Spectators, runners. We can't do a metal detector for every backpack. We can't," he said.

Connors pointed out that the area where the bombs went off probably had been checked earlier in the day. "I'm sure prior to the race they had dozens of bomb-detection dogs, K9 units," he said. "And they swept that area very well. But the problem is, once you do that, you can't secure it. So you do it for the moment. And you say 'OK, right now, at 1:30, it's safe.' But that doesn't mean it's going to be safe at 2 o'clock. That's the big problem with an outdoor environment."

. @webertom1 I've never felt unsafe at races I've run and I won't let the events in Boston change that for future races.

— Ben Meyer (@benmeyer78) April 17, 2013

Horrible as the attack was, Connor said, "We were actually very fortunate from a medical perspective that this situation happened on this big event day. Because it was a big event, they not only trained for it, they were staffed up and geared up. They were overstaffed. They had called in physicians that on a normal day wouldn't have been there. But because it was race day and because they anticipate something might happen, they were highly staffed up. I don't want to say they were ready for this, but they were ready for a bunch of hypothetical situations, and this fell into their plan. So it was actually a fortunate time for something like this to occur."

Host Tom Weber compared the marathon's finish line to another large, public event. "If you go down to Times Square on New Year's Eve, it's an open-air event, but everyone who goes into Times Square now goes through security. The bags are checked, etc. Assuming we can't do all 26 miles of a marathon, is this the right move: that maybe just that finish area is that highly secured area, like Times Square, where everyone goes through a bag check?"

"I think one of the outcomes is going to be a look at what you just said," Marciani said. "I think we'll be looking at credentialing, training, video surveillance, things of that nature."

A caller in Blaine identified herself as Nicole and said the news from Boston has changed her behavior. "I do probably 10 to 20 races a year; I've run five marathons all over the country," she said. "I do make it sort of a family event. My husband and two children do come to some of those races and watch me. It is kind of how we show our children that we live a healthy lifestyle.

"I will not stop doing races, but I will not have my family come to those races anymore. It just doesn't feel right. Probably nothing will happen, but I don't want to say, 'I could have done something differently.'"

Another caller, John, took a different view: "We can't live in fear of this. It's like trying to protect yourself from being struck by lightning. The chances are just astronomical, even if you were in Boston that day, to have been in any way harmed by this. I think we need to check ourselves, and maybe go back to Roosevelt's 'all we have to fear is fear itself.' I think we can overreact and quickly evolve into a police state here."

RELATED: A Boston marathon vet ponders the vulnerability of those who run, those who watch (Commentary by Tom Weber)

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.