The agencies responded with what they calledan “unprecedented” level of security to ensure the safety of the 8million residents of New York—and the thousands planning to attend theconvention. Following standard practice at a National Special SecurityEvent (NSSE), USSS was the lead federal agency in charge of designingand implementing the security plan. The New York Police Department(NYPD) took the helm at the local level.
The result was a city that wasn’t paralyzedduring the four-day convention from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, and didn’tsuffer any terrorist events. Although it certainly wasn’t business asusual, law enforcement considered security at the RNC a resoundingsuccess. The city wasn’t under siege, as many had feared. There wassome chaos—but it was controlled chaos.
“To manage all that and to keep the cityoperating as always was incredible,” said Timothy Horner, an associatemanaging director for Kroll Inc., a New York-based risk consultingcompany that provides security services to corporations. “The citycould have easily closed down and law enforcement was able to preventthat.”
Despite the absence of terrorism, theAmerican Civil Liberties Union roundly criticized the NYPD and RNCsecurity. Scores of protesters claimed that the police subjected themto arbitrary arrests and detained them for as long as 60 hours, a ploythey charged was used to prevent them from returning to the streets.RNC security also suffered embarrassment from a handful of zealousprotesters who on Sept. 1 were able to penetrate what was consideredairtight security at the convention center.
You’re not in Beantown anymore
One thing was clear to all involved inorganizing the RNC and the security surrounding it: This wasn’t Boston,site of the Democratic National Convention in July. New York’s size andscope, coupled with its global significance and the 250,000 protesterswho greeted convention-goers on Aug. 29, assured them of a far morerigorous challenge.
“Boston is a very different animal,” saidChristopher Falkenberg, president of Insite Securities, a NewYork-based security firm, and former secret service agent. “It doesn’thave the volume of commerce, the commercial life that New York Cityhas. It’s a less important city nationally and internationally. Bostoncan literally shut its transportation down and business can tolerateit.”
New Yorkers wouldn’t and couldn’t tolerateanything approaching a shutdown of Penn Station or—for $76 million (theestimated cost of security)—any major mistakes, Falkenberg added. Amonth before the start of the convention, rumors abounded that theSecret Service was considering shutting down Penn Station. The agencywas admittedly concerned that New York’s transportation hub, locatedjust below Madison Square Garden, could become a potential target forterrorists, like the railway attacks in Madrid.
But if the Secret Service found the proximityof Penn Station to Madison Square Garden problematic, it never intendedto close it down, according to TK Smith, the special agent in charge ofthe New York Secret Service Office and the designated principal federalofficial for the RNC. The station remained open during the convention.
A fortified Garden
Around Madison Square Garden, the city appeared to be on military alert.
“There was an unprecedented level ofsecurity,” said the Secret Service’s Smith. “From uniformed andplain-clothes police to every piece of the latest technology, there wasunmatched manpower and expertise.”
The area most impacted by the convention wasthe “frozen zone” carvedout around the perimeter of “the Garden,”extending between 28th and 35th streets and from Sixth to Ninthavenues. The city was already on orange alert, and the frozen zone wasparticularly fortified. Concrete barricades and metal fences were usedto seal off city streets; police sharpshooters and SWAT teams could beseen perched atop skyscrapers and hotels. Coast Guard cutters patrolledthe harbors for suspicious watercraft, while helicopters and even asurveillance blimp buzzed overhead, eerily reminding some residents of9/11.
While unnerving and annoying to somepedestrians, the temporary road closings and vehicular checks loweredthe chances of a motor vehicle being used as a weapon of terror. Lawenforcement’s use of eight portable “sally ports,” metal road barriersmanufactured by Delta Scientific Corp., Valencia, Calif., that isolatedvehicles for inspection, served the city well. Once within the portsvehicles were scanned using SecuScan undercarriage camera systemsdistributed by TCS International, based in Sudbury, Mass.
Innovative technology was used on a widescale to monitor areas around the frozen zone and watch key citylandmarks from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Holland Tunnel. Police usedhelmet-mounted cameras to record the actions of protesters.Surveillance in the form of cameras, satellites and closed circuittelevision played a big part in monitoring activity inside and outsidethe convention center.
The NYPD was the city’s most visiblepresence, with 10,000 officers in charge, including the formidableHercules Unit, a cadre of officers trained in biological and chemicalresponse. The police were seemingly omnipresent, to both the relief andchagrin of some citizens. They rode the trains, patrolled the streetsand even monitored the ventilation systems of area hotels.
To facilitate the arrival of more than 4,000delegates and dignitaries at the Garden, the city created special buslanes. Vehicle checkpoints were established at four different pointsaround the perimeter, and those allowed to enter were thoroughlyscreened for weapons and explosives. One Police Plaza, the city’sdowntown police headquarters, served as the Multiple Agency LawEnforcement center for about 150 employees of 66 agencies.
Planning for the convention started with thecreation of an executive security committee consisting of severalmembers from all 66 agencies, ranging from the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency, to the United States Postal Service. Eighteensubcommittees, including some on training, transportation and venuesecurity, were established to focus on the minutiae.
Smith said that, thanks to sufficientplanning and multi-agency training exercises, each agency knew exactlywhat was expected of it and knew the other key players.
US Coast Guard Capt. Glenn Wiltshire, captainof the Port of New York, attended many of the multiagency trainingexercises. Wiltshire commanded about 1,300 Coast Guard personnelresponsible for securing the waters of New York Harbor during the RNC.
In the weeks leading up to the convention,the Coast Guard increased both air and aquatic patrols, restrictingrecreational vehicles in certain parts of the harbor. Random boardingof watercraft was stepped up, and Coast Guard helicopters assistedpolice and others agencies in security-zone surveillance. Armed CoastGuard personnel were as common on the Staten Island Ferry as police onthe New York subway. Cutters from Boston and Maine, three 65-footpatrol boats and a 140-foot icebreaking tug, were brought in to fortifyan already formidable fleet.
The Coast Guard also tested the use ofHawkeye, a surveillance system that employs infrared imaging radar andcameras designed to provide an early warning of approaching enemyships. The system gave commanders a real-time picture of the harbor. Italso was used to monitor maritime traffic in Boston at the DNC.
While the NYPD was the agency that got muchof the credit and most of the blame for what went right and wrongduring the RNC, it wasn’t the only local agency taking heat. The NewYork City Fire Department (FDNY) also played a key role in providingsecurity for the city and at times got caught up in the tug of warbetween the NYPD and protesters.
“The demonstrations were a wild card, wenever knew what would pop up,” said Harold Meyers, assistant chief ofthe department, Manhattan borough commander and the officer in chargeof 400 firefighters and emergency responders responsible for theconvention and the surrounding perimeter. “We had incidents ofprotesters scuffling with police that our guys got trapped between.They were trained to get out of the area and told to go into theclosest building or on top the nearest roof, which they did on at leastone occasion.”
Firefighters and emergency workers had astrong presence both in and out of Madison Square Garden and across thestreet at the Farley Post Office, where up to 15,000 journalists werequartered.
At the convention center, the FDNY had apre-staged fire-fighting force consisting of three engine and twoladder companies, a battalion chief and alarm investigation teams. Forthe first time, the department used its Polaris Mini-Engine, anall-terrain vehicle that can maneuver quickly through city streets,carrying five firefighters and a 75-gallon tank hose.
Meyer’s crew fought two minor fires duringthe RNC, one at a local fast-food restaurant and the other set byprotesters. The protesters allegedly lit a gigantic dragon prop theywere carrying through the street, and several were arrested on arsoncharges. One police officer received minor burns on his arm.
The RNC proved that a massive event doesn’thave to close down a city, and that cooperation among disparateagencies is possible if preparation is sufficiently thorough. But evenwith thousands of law enforcement officials possessing state of the arttechnology, it’s possible for the unexpected to happen—as demonstratedby a group of protesters who, on Sept. 1, on the floor of theconvention, stripped off outer shirts to reveal undershirts emblazonedwith anti-Bush messages during a speech by White House Chief of StaffAndrew Card. They were quickly arrested and removed from the floor.
Many officials agree that the decision tomake sure each agency had a “go-to guy,” rather than a bureaucratichierarchy, sped up decision-making and saved time. Still, securityprofessionals see some room for improvement, including more foolproofways to prevent outsiders from penetrating the convention floor.
“I think we can take the success of the RNCand apply it to NSSE venues in the future,” said Secret Service AgentSmith. “In a post 9/11 world, cooperation has never been higher betweenthe feds and state and local groups. The whole process had an extremelycohesive nature. But I don’t think we can get comfortable. We have tobe vigilant against terror. There are new streams of intelligencecoming every day. To be really successful, you have to refine your plandaily. It’s a learning process.” HST
David Koeppel is a New York writer and frequent to contributor to The New York Times and the New York Post. His work has also appeared in Newsday and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.