Rich Cooper

Sep 21, 2009

This week my hometown of Pittsburgh will play host to the world as the G-20 Summit comes to the City of Champions.  Along with hosting an array of the world’s top leaders to talk about the challenging issues of our time (e.g. the economy, environment, etc.), thousands of protestors will also be descending upon the city of three rivers to share their perspective on things.

As we know from previous G-20s, World Trade Organization meetings and other high-profile international summits, gatherings such as these bring out the best and worst of people.  While we will see panoramic images of smiling leaders taking in the sights and cultures of the host city, we will also see protestors carrying signs, bullhorns and “floats/displays” or large-scale puppets to show their disdain for the policies, programs and people present at the summit.  The overwhelming majority of these protestors will be peaceful in exercising their civil and human right of free speech, but there are those few individuals that are hell-bent on causing chaos and destruction.  It is those persons that give any host city for a large-scale event of this type pause in preparing for such a gathering.

Pittsburgh is no different, but I have to say my concern has grown after I got a message on Friday from a high school friend who alerted me to a news story that the area’s jails were releasing 100-200 inmates to make room for the protestors.  

While Western Pennsylvania is home to some of the most distinguished, practiced and professional emergency managers and public safety personnel in the country, I’ve been concerned for some time about the city’s preparations for this event given the short time frame they had to prepare for it.  There is little doubt that the city is HUGE on the sports scene and in the banking, medical and technology areas, but Pittsburgh is not a city of the scale of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.  Each of those cities is huge geographically and operationally, and is used to having large scale events of this type.  Hosting the world’s leaders and its most practiced and professional protestors are a first for Pittsburgh.  

Security at events like these is always the top concern.  The U.S. Secret Service will be running the show providing protection for the President, his family and the other visiting world leaders.  I have no concerns about their performance – they are the best in the world, but I am concerned about the Pittsburgh community at large.

Supplementing the Secret Service will be the city’s police department (only 900 or so uniformed officers) along with Pennsylvania State Police and regional law enforcement jurisdictions.  Large-scale protests of any size can be taxing upon any police force, but some of the folks that are making their way to my hometown this week are the world champions of havoc and chaos and have the YouTube footage, criminal records and destroyed property to prove it.

It’s one thing to prepare for protestors but it’s another when you have to release people from jail to make room for those who are coming to town and expect to take up residence behind bars.  While assurances have been made that those released are not violent offenders, these folks were in jail for a reason.  

This action by the region last week begs the question, at what cost should a community have to bear to host an event such as this?

It’s bad enough Pittsburgh, like previous U.S. host cities for National Special Security Events (NSSEs) – New York City, Denver, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, etc. is having its daily life interrupted by some necessary (and in some cases excessive) security arrangements.

The community is already being forced to close schools, government offices and businesses (at considerable expense and inconvenience) to accommodate the required security needs and transportation logistics.  

These costs in terms of time, money and convenience are on top having a financially strapped area foot the bill for a range of things the Feds won’t pay for after they leave town.

Now it has to have its own personal security jeopardized by needing to release inmates to make room for ill-behaved protestors?

Many in Pittsburgh are taking great and deserved joy in showing themselves off to the world but many more are asking after the release of these jail inmates, “Is this event worth it?”

That’s a question many of my family and friends have been asking me and themselves these past few weeks.

We’re going to get some answers real soon.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief


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