SF Pride officials, police review security after Boston bombings
by Seth Hemmelgarn
The bombings at the Boston Marathon last week that killed three people and injured scores more have left many thinking about security at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration and other large open-air events.
Organizers of the June 29-30 Pride Parade and festival aren't saying much about what changes they'll make. But with hundreds of thousands of people gathering on city streets, the festival could make an easy target.
Earl Plante, CEO of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee, said safety staff and others at the nonprofit are discussing what to do.
"At key gates, we'll be implementing some strategic changes," Plante said. "We take these challenges very seriously, so we're implementing these changes as we move forward."
Among other potential vulnerabilities, the bags and backpacks of people entering the celebration at Civic Center aren't checked. Additionally, increased attendance is expected at this year's festivities. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce in June – possibly right before Pride – its decisions in two same-sex marriage cases, including California's Proposition 8.
"There are limitations for big scale events of our scope," Plante said. "It's even more incumbent that everyone takes a role in this process." He repeated a line that became common after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center: "If you see something, say something."
Pride officials have met with staff at the San Francisco Police Department's Northern Station, Plante said, but he wouldn't share specifics on what changes could be coming.
"We don't want to let the bad guys know" the details, he said. Changes had been planned even before the April 15 Boston bombings, he said. San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr has been invited to the next Pride membership meeting, set for May 14, Plante said.
"From my perspective, everything's on the table," he said. "We're taking a fresh look. Of course, we have heightened sensitivity around what happened."
One idea that's been discussed is asking people to leave backpacks at home.
"All things are on the table. We haven't made decisions on any of these matters," Plante said. Organizers will also have to "take a look" at whether they'll need more money for security, he said. Pride's current budget is about $1.7 million. Plante said officials would make their decisions by the end of May.
One change that's already been announced is that Pride, which has used volunteer emergency medical personnel, is bringing in Rock Medicine, an outside, all-volunteer nonprofit, to enhance its medical team. Pride will still use other volunteers, as well. Rock Medicine will be paid $2,000.
Rock Medicine director Gordon Oldham, who didn't respond to an emailed request for comment for this story, said in a statement from Pride that his organization manages over 750 events and provides free medical services to more than 3,000 patients a year.
Longtime Pride volunteer Todd Collins will be the medical manager liaison. He will be paid $1,500.
"Rock Medicine provides the services we have previously provided and in addition they have the capacity to provide even more advanced medical care than we have been able to in the past," Collins stated.
Brooke Oliver, Pride's general counsel, said in a recent interview that organizers have been considering bringing in an outside firm for years, and given the size of the celebration and other factors, "we decided it might be good to do a hybrid" of an outside company and Pride volunteers.
Concerns around something like the Boston Marathon bombing happening at Pride have been driving the examination of medical services provisions in the past couple years, Oliver said. She pointed to recent violent incidents such as a shooting on Market Street on June 25, 2011 where several people were injured. The attack, which occurred on the first day of that year's celebration, happened near the event, but police have said it didn't appear to be related to Pride.
The concern is "being able to provide more sophisticated services," Oliver said. "The volunteers are limited to providing pretty much basic first aid. Even if they're licensed at higher levels than that they're supposed to be able to provide emergency first aid and then turn people over to the ambulance crews under San Francisco rules."
Another popular event coming up in June is Pink Saturday, the annual street party that draws thousands of people to the Castro district on the eve of the Pride Parade. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence organize the party, which has seen some violent incidents in recent years, including the fatal shooting of Stephen Powell, 19, in 2010.
Pink Saturday attendees already have their bags checked and are wanded at entrance gates, and long lines form along Market Street for hours.
Sister Selma Soul said this week that the greater threat at the event isn't a bomb, it's "somebody being mugged," or being victimized in similar incidents "that can happen on any Saturday night in the Castro."
Recent events are "definitely a consideration, but we already take those situations into account when we're planning our security and our response," Soul, whose legal name is James Bazydola, said. Soul said that working with city officials, the Sisters have been "seeing if there are things we can augment." They'll "continue to be diligent with parameter inspections" and in other areas, Soul said.
People involved with Pink Saturday already sweep the area for suspicious materials before the event.
"We're going to see if we can up that a little bit," Soul said. However, Soul said, "Our event takes place in a neighborhood, and what happens behind closed doors, we have no idea."
Soul added, "Our problem is going to be people already on the street." The Castro is "a fully active neighborhood when we arrive," and "we don't clear the streets out," Soul said.
"Just because we're screening people at the gate doesn't mean somebody wasn't there at 3 in the afternoon," Soul said.
According to Officer Albie Esparza, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, Suhr has said it's "too early" to say what changes may need to be made for Pride and similar events.
"We're doing one event at a time, and we won't know until we meet with the event coordinators," Esparza said.
He added, "We want people to enjoy every event we have in the city," and police don't want people to be scared, but they also want attendants to be aware of their surroundings.
"If you see something, say something," Esparza said. "You just have to call police or approach a uniformed officer and inform them of any suspicious activity" or anything that "doesn't appear to be normal," such as "suspicious" packages.
The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported Suhr "wants to set up cameras along Market Street to monitor parades and other big events." Cameras near the Boston bombings were crucial to leading officials to the suspects in the case.
The cameras would be permanent, but it's not clear when they would be installed or who would pay for them, said Esparza, who didn't know how much they might cost. Legislation at the Board of Supervisors to propose the cameras hasn't yet been introduced.
Asked about where the cameras would go, Esparza noted parades and other events normally go from the foot of Market Street down to Civic Center, where the annual Pride parade ends at the festival. Installing cameras along the Embarcadero is an additional possibility, he said.
Esparza said video footage could also be helpful in addressing "day-to-day crime," such as robberies, shootings, and stabbings.
Suhr's job "is to protect the city and county, and he's looking at ways to do that," Esparza said.
The cameras wouldn't be monitored in real time, due to police not having enough staff and other factors, but they could possibly be supervised during special events like the Pride parade, "since everything is already televised, and it's a public event," Esparza said.
"For the most part," while the cameras would provide 24-hour surveillance, the police department wouldn't be able to access or operate them, Esparza said.
Each recorder would just be "a fixed camera that captures street images, and when something happens, it would be very useful to go ahead and pull those recorded videos and see if we can obtain a suspect description or capture the incident," Esparza said. He noted there are already private cameras on Market Street.
Supervisor Eric Mar has scheduled a hearing at the Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee on the city's plans for security measures at large public events. "Suhr said he will spell out details of his proposed camera plan" at the hearing, the Chronicle reported.
"I have full faith that our various city departments are capable of protecting our residents, but I also think it is the right time to evaluate our city's security plans and to ensure that our civil liberties are being safe guarded as well," Mar said in a statement.
The hearing is set for 2 p.m., Thursday, May 2 in Room 250 at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.
Pride in New York
New York City's Pride events are planned around the same weekend as San Francisco's.
Chris Frederick, the managing director of Heritage of Pride, which hosts New York City's Pride events, said, "Obviously, we take safety and security very seriously."
Organizers haven't had initial discussions with the New York Police Department yet, "but typically, we have those meetings in May, then we have another big, all hands on deck meeting in June." Frederick imagines the subject "of making sure that security and safety is enhanced or improved" will come up, he said.
Frederick said his organization does its best to sweep the area before the parade starts on its 2.5-mile route "to make sure there's nothing suspicious or any sort of packaging along the route." There are also ticketed events where "we do fairly lengthy security checks" that include pat-downs and bag checks, he said.
"For the parade specifically, or for the march, as we like to call it, we generally look to the NYPD, since they're the ones that have more intelligence than we do in terms of what's going on behind the scenes," Frederick said.
Police do "a fairly comprehensive look at the whole area," including the blocks surrounding the parade route. For the parade, festival, and other events June 28-30, Frederick said organizers usually see an attendance of about 1.7 million people, but he's expecting from 10 percent to 20 percent more this year.