The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is turning to new tactics to prepare for more high-profile international sporting events in Sarasota County, such as the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
These events, including the Modern Pentathlon World Cup in June at the Sarasota Polo Club, will not only draw large crowds (almost 50,000 fans and athletes are expected at the rowing championships), but they will also cast an international spotlight on Sarasota County.
“We’ve had dignitaries and big events in the area before,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Locke, head of the agency’s Special Operations Bureau. “It’s not really new, but we’re on the world stage now, and that brings problems with it.”
Although Locke acknowledged there was no specific threat to Sarasota County associated with any of the upcoming sporting events, he said such high-profile international events inherently raise the risk of terrorism.
In concert with intelligence from federal agencies, the Sheriff’s Office conducts a risk analysis of each major event coming to the area, and prepares for every potential “catastrophic situation,” which could range from a terrorist attack to a thunderstorm.
“Everybody thinks automatically it’s terrorism that we have to worry about the most,” said Locke, who is an18-year SWAT team veteran. “But one of our biggest concerns is traffic and getting people in and out of there safely.”
Although the Secret Service does not classify the upcoming sporting events as National Special Security Events, and federal agencies have not identified a specific threat to the area, Locke points to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as a warning against complacency.
Sarasota Sheriff’s SWAT team members and intelligence analysts debrief events like the Boston bombing to glean lessons that guide the development of the agency’s security infrastructure when dealing with large events.
One of the key lessons learned from Boston, Locke said, was the value of surveillance equipment in identifying the two suspects.
“We’re in talks right now with county staff to look at electronic countermeasures and new surveillance technology,” Locke said.
The agency also seeks to develop new tactics and improve training. The Sheriff’s Office recently sent two deputies to the Head of the Charles rowing regatta in Boston (which draws 200,000 spectators) to study the security protocol Massachusetts State Police used.
Intelligence sharing and the interoperability of federal, state and municipal law-enforcement agencies was one of the major changes made after Sept. 11. Locke said he was extremely happy with the intelligence and assistance he has received from federal sources.
As part of the risk analysis of the World Rowing Championship, the Sheriff’s Office is working with the Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. State Department.
Although the Sheriff’s Office has not yet asked the County Commission for additional funding or manpower, Locke acknowledged those changes are inevitable.
“We’re going to have to look at increased spending in preparation for these big events,” Locke said, “but we can’t compromise safety for cost.”
The Sheriff’s Office expects the additional costs will be partially mitigated by new technologies that can increase the capabilities of each individual deputy, as well as assistance from federal and state agencies.
One of the greatest challenges facing the agency is balancing the overt security presence needed to deter potential terrorists and criminals with the need to make event attendees feel comfortable.
“Security is a deterrent, but we have to balance security with convenience,” Locke said. “We’re going to staff a particular event with the appropriate amount of deputies to make people feel safe.”
The agency has worked to develop new capabilities within its ranks, such as upgrading the infrared sensor used on its helicopter, Air 1, and the recent certification of a K-9 team in explosives detection.
“You have to be nimble,” Locke said. “We’re going to explore upcoming technologies.”
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]