Arenas/Stadiums/Leagues/Entertainment / Physical Security

How the Boston Marathon Bombing Changed the Game of Sports Security

One year ago, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, shocking the nation and driving international sporting event security changes

April 1, 2014

When William Evans, then-Superintendent of the Boston Police Department, found out that there had been bombs set off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, he was at home, having just finished running the race himself. “All the way driving in, and it probably only took me about 10 or 15 minutes to get back, I kept saying, ‘This can’t be happening. It can’t be,’” says Evans. “I still was hoping that it was more of a transformer fire or an explosion. I was in disbelief until I got back onto that street and went to work. To see the damage, to see the bodies there, it really hit home. To have run down that street an hour earlier and have seen the joy and the happiness and the beauty of the day, and then to return and see the destruction and the windows blown out… it was surreal, it really was.” 

It’s no easy feat to secure a soft target like a 26.2-mile marathon, but previous training helped immensely in the aftermath of the marathon bombing. “We always planned that (the marathon) would be a target that would draw international attention, but we thought there was more of a possibility of someone trying to disrupt the race. I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams thought we’d have two bombs go off at the finish line,” Evans says. In preparation for the worst to happen, the Boston Police Department had undergone several multi-agency training exercises through Urban Shield for the past few years, says Evans, who is now the Boston Police Commissioner. The Urban Shield training “is a 24-hour exercise during which first responders are deployed and rotated through various scenarios. That helped us get to know each other and build relationships, so when this happened on marathon day, we were able to deploy our partner agencies, and we all worked together well,” Evans says. “Training is key. None of the cooperation at the marathon happened because we all happened to be in the right place at the right time. There are a lot of great relationships there, a lot of knowledge of each other’s capabilities, and that came about because of the importance of training.”

Gary Gardner, a 32-year FBI veteran, President & CEO of TOTALeACCESS, and Program Director for the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4), agrees. One of the results of 9/11 was that “we started realizing that we have got to be more attuned to working with each other. We need to know each other before something happens and how everyone works together before it happens,” he says. “Look at the fantastic team working there (in Boston). It might have looked like chaos from the outside to some people, but behind the scenes, a lot of good things happened because a lot of these people were used to working together, and they weren’t fighting over who was in charge. It became one big team.”

The Boston Marathon bombing has inevitably spawned some changes in the world of sporting event security. This past season, the National Football League revised its policy on the size and type of bags that they allowed into stadiums, permitting only clear bags and clutch purses the size of an adult hand. At the Super Bowl in February, tailgating was banned, and fans were not allowed to park and walk to the game, or be dropped off by a taxi or limo, but instead had to either take New Jersey transit or ride a chartered bus provided by the Super Bowl committee. Though the NFL has already had metal detectors in place at stadiums since 2011, many Major League Baseball ballparks will also be implementing metal detectors this season, and all ballparks will be required to have them by 2015. “I know that basketball and hockey are doing their studies and evaluations right now,” says Gardner. At the New York City Marathon in 2013, bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the course, the ferries had armed escorts and the runners went through metal detectors. Even the intense security for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was influenced by the Boston Marathon bombing, said Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

With new security measures comes extra training and planning. Security plans have to be updated to adjust to the new environment. “Now we’re going to have metal detectors (at many sports events). How are we going to deal with that? You’ve got to set up training because this is new and people haven’t done this,” says Gardner. “The other thing is, every year, all of these places should have, and most of them are mandated to have, a training exercise, where you exercise the plan. Sometimes it’s just a table top exercise, sometimes it’s as much of a full-blown exercise as you can do, but you’ve got to exercise that plan so you can make sure it’s going to work.” Since the Boston bombing, “we’re able to fine tune what we’ve been training and practicing for years and now know what works, what doesn’t work, and say that we’ve got to look at other open air events out there that we weren’t focusing on before,” Gardner says.

Another good lesson learned from the Boston bombing is video placement, says Gardner. “A lot of the pictures that were used to identify the bombers came from private sources, like hotels and businesses with cameras. Now one of the things we know is to catalog cameras ahead of time so we know who along a route has cameras and who doesn’t, so if something bad happens, we know who to go back to.” This has also led to more police departments using body cameras on their officers, Gardner says.

In the case of professional sporting events, customer service is also an important factor that has to be considered. “You have to be able to accommodate people and at the same time maintain security and safety. You don’t create big long lines because people are coming and spending money. When you’re on the public safety side, you don’t always think about customer service and keeping the public happy, but they’re paying to come to the event and you want them to keep coming,” Gardner says. This is also why he predicts that basketball and hockey will make their security decisions in tandem, so fans will only have to abide by one set of safety rules at arenas, a good customer service tactic.

The danger in the months and years following tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombing? Complacency. “The longer you go that something doesn’t happen, the more you become complacent. Really, the biggest thing we fight in our continued battle to stop these things is complacency,” says Gardner. Right after something happens, people are on the alert and interested in knowing how to step up security, but once time has gone by, it’s easy to relax. There again, training and vigilance are key. “I keep reminding people at NCS4 conferences that they’re training these people not just to be looking to see if somebody brought a bag, because most people aren’t going to have a bag now. You’re looking for the unusual things too. Is it a cool day and this guy is sweating profusely? Does this person seem to be nervous? You’re looking for things that don’t seem to make sense given the surroundings at that point in time. So that’s at least every bit as important, if not more so, than watching the bags, because the word is going to get out about the bags,” Gardner says. Since 9/11, security has been focused on sharp items and shoes. The Times Square bombing created more awareness of parked vehicles. Now the Boston bombing has moved the spotlight to bags and backpacks. “The next attack isn’t going to come from any of those things,” says Gardner. “If we get too fixated on them, we’re going to miss what the next delivery is.”

As for security at the Boston Marathon this year, Evans says they’re ready. In a typical year, training and planning for marathon security takes place a few times in the months leading up to the marathon, but “we started planning almost right after last year’s on how we’re going to handle this year’s marathon,” says Evans. “Our officers are going to a lot more training leading up to it, and both our tactical outfits, as well as a lot of our detectives and officers, are being trained in bomb recognition, so they’re trained to look for the characteristics of someone who might be carrying a bomb or some of the things they might carry the package in.” There will also be more video cameras, stricter controls in the corrals where the runners come out, and a new baggage policy. This year, other than fanny packs, no bags will be allowed on the buses. “That’s a big, big change,” Evans says.

And will Commissioner Evans run in this year’s marathon? “That’s the big question,” he responds. He’s understandably torn. Though he registered and has a number, he was made police commissioner since then. However, the Richard family, who lost their 8-year-old son at the marathon bombing, asked Evans to wear a team shirt and run in their son’s memory. “My priority is obviously to make the city as safe as possible, but if the mayor thinks symbolically that it’s great for the city that we go back and prove that we won’t be intimidated, and he thinks it’ll be good for me to run for the city and in memory of that young boy, I’ll do whatever he wants me to do. I feel honored that they asked me.”   

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