Security Experts Pan Philly’s Pope Plan

But is City Hall getting a bum rap?

Paul Nussbaum at the Inquirer had a good idea: ask big-time security experts what they think of the, uh, thorough, security and crowd control measures the city and its partners appear to be making for Pope Francis’s visit at the end of September.

Their thoughts, in a nutshell? This is overkill. By a lot. Drexel’s Scott White, a professor of homeland security and a former security official in Canada, scoffed to the Inquirer:

“What are we attempting to do here? Are we attempting to protect the pontiff, who already has – and always has – rings of security? Or are we attempting to protect one million or two million people?”

“We can’t protect 40 people in a cinema,” White said, referring to the spate of recent theater shootings. “How are we going to protect two million people?”

Edward Davis, the former Boston police commissioner, told the paper “it’s virtually impossible to set up a police perimeter around a crowd that large.” And Henry Willis, a security expert at RAND, told the Inquirer: “You have to do security in a way that doesn’t ruin the primary purpose of the event. You want to try to not disrupt the city too much.”

Read the whole story here. On the one hand, it’s pretty damning. On the other, I think this piece conflates security measures with crowd control, which is something we’re seeing in a lot of pope visit coverage.

Look, I get it, for for residents, they basically amount to the same thing; enormous hassle and inconvenience. But they’re not the same.

An over-the-top, overly-intrusive security response; that I’ve got a huge problem with, and not just because – as the security experts who talked to the Inquirer said – it could easily be defeated by any would-be security threat with half a brain. The prospect of screening 1.5 million pilgrims is, obviously, ludicrous, not to mention the thousands of people who will be within whatever perimeter is established before before the security hammer comes down on September 25. Such a scenario (and that’s all it is right now, a scenario – we don’t really know what’s going to happen) would be 1) a farce, in terms of actual security 2) an affront to Pope Francis’s likely message and 3) disturbingly authoritarian. Overbearing security at an event the world will be watching that hasn’t a prayer of stopping a determined bad actor? Gah. That’s bad. Really bad.

But … we don’t actually know yet that these reports of screening as far away as the Ben Franklin Bridge are real. We don’t know where the “pope fence” will go.

And what we do know – the measures that have actually been announced – don’t have all that much to do with security, really. They’re about crowd control: The traffic box; SEPTA’s severely limited regional rail stops; the closed highways, etc. None of that has anything to do with stopping an attack on the pope or the city. Those steps are purely about managing what the city, the state, the Secret Service and the World Meeting of Families clearly expect to be unfathomably huge crowds.

Inconvenient? Yes. It’s a hassle to have to walk or bike to a location you can normally get to by car or transit. But inconvenience doesn’t bother me nearly as much as authoritarian overstepping does. Closing a street to cars is one thing. Closing a street to anyone who hasn’t been through a metal detector or subjected to a pat-down is intrinsically different.

Granted, even the announced crowd control measures might be overkill. They certainly feel like overkill at T-minus 47-days. But look, let’s try and remember: what Philadelphia is trying to pull off here actually is something enormous and quite different than past papal visits to the U.S. 

So, it’s possible we’ll all be grateful when this is over that City Hall and SEPTA did as much as they clearly plan to do to control traffic and transit in and out of Philadelphia.

And, while I might be alone here, I felt a bit better about City Hall’s role in all of this after last week’s press conference in City Hall. Mayor Nutter, I’d thought, had been a bit, uh, pissy on this subject before (he disagreed with that characterization rather strongly, by the way).  Last week, though, Nutter’s tone was less dismissive, more we’re-gonna-get-through-this-and-it-will-be-great. He’s going to need to say it more than once.