Improving safety and security outside athletic venues

In the London Tube, “MIND THE GAP” signs and announcements are everywhere to warn passengers about the dangerous space between the train and the platform. This simple phrase has always struck me as a powerful reminder of where we need to focus our efforts to ensure the safety of special events: we need to focus on the gaps.

In particular, we must mind the gaps that surround the event venue. These gaps are found in the parking lots, rail yards, industrial areas, fields and other properties that are not included in our risk management plans. These gaps form along the boundaries between organizations, entities and jurisdictional authorities. They are widened by anonymous neighbors, missing information, inadequate planning, poor resource coordination and complacency. We need to close the gaps.

For years we have been warned about the self-radicalized, “lone wolf” extremists, but it wasn’t until the bombing at the Boston Marathon that these fears were realized and the true scope of the problem materialized. The frequency and severity of attacks on public spaces has increased at a frightening pace. This is no longer a matter of “if,” but “when” and “where” these criminals will strike.

I may not be able to predict when the next incident will occur, but I can tell you it will happen in a crowded space outside of a venue. It could happen in the parking garage down the street or at the tailgate party a block away. It could happen in the bustling restaurants where people eat before they walk to the game or the concert. It will happen outside of the protective curtain we have drawn around our entertainment venues. It will happen in the gaps.

To close the gaps, we need to get to know our neighbors. My mother’s side of the family has lived in a small Illinois farm town for generations, and everyone knows his or her neighbors. They check in when something doesn’t seem right. They look out for each other and take care of each other.

Technology has changed this dynamic. Today, many neighborhoods — mine included — share news and information through a common Facebook page or local Twitter feed. If there is an issue or concern, it gets broadcast to the whole street. Unfortunately, this may be a growing exception. In a national survey, the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of adults (43 percent) in the United States knew most of their neighbors by name. If you parse the data in the Pew survey, you can find correlations between information-sharing and criminal activity. In areas where neighbors knew and looked out for each other, people were generally more prosperous and the neighborhood had lower crime rates. How about your venue? How many of your neighbors do you know?

Regular communication with your neighbors will get information flowing, and you never know what you may learn. This idea forms the foundation of most community-based policing initiatives, which encourage local police officers to walk the streets and interact with residents. The interaction builds trust and reveals specific information that may be useful in preventing crime and other problems.

Several years ago I was working with a client who was having trouble with vehicle burglaries around their venue. Over time, the venue operators got to know the residents in the area. They offered them work during the event, and in return, the residents were able to help law enforcement identify those who had been responsible for the break-ins. Once the gaps with the community were closed, the problems vanished.

For the past decade, venue operators have been focused on hardening their facilities and building defensible spaces to prevent threats from getting inside. Venues have spent a lot of time and effort developing plans, policies and procedures in an effort to prevent incidents from occurring and to be better prepared to respond and recover from those that do.

The second thing we need to do to close the gaps is to include our neighbors in the planning process. For example, how many venues today have a plan to monitor parking areas for signs of trouble? Most venues cannot do this on their own because they do not own or operate many of the parking areas around their venue. Engaging these lot owners and other local businesses — and including them in the planning process — makes everyone safer and stronger.

Coordinating resources is also important and helps build good will in the community. This is more than sharing information. It is about sharing tools, people and techniques. In Europe, for example, supporter groups have been characterized by widespread violence during and after soccer matches.

In recent years, supporter group violence has decreased dramatically, due in part to a change in the steward program. Many stadiums, particularly in the United Kingdom, have specially trained stewards (we might call them ushers) dedicated to particular supporter groups. They know the members of the group by name and interact with them regularly. When the team is on the road, some of the stewards travel with the supporter group and serve as a liaison between the group and the host venue. Other stewards remain behind and go with the supporter groups to local bars and pubs where they watch the match.

The stewards leverage the relationship they have with the supporter group to help resolve issues with the local pub owner and the away stadium. The stewards know the group. They know who to look out for, and they have the respect of those in the group. In this way the stewards are a shared resource that helps close the gap between the supporter group and the place where the supporter group has come to enjoy the match.

Finally, if we are to close the gaps we must be vigilant. Complacency is the greatest danger anyone in security faces. We must constantly work to instill a sense of purpose and alertness in our people and our neighbors. In this respect, we would be wise to remember that we are only as strong as the weakest link. So how do we combat complacency? Exercise. We must include our neighbors in exercises to help keep the entire neighborhood sharp.

Exercises can be as simple as a 30-minute tabletop once a month. It might be regular, joint intelligence briefings with the local police department. It might be walking tours during different times to look at challenges that come to the neighborhood on event day. It might be some type of game or contest to see who can report suspicious behavior most accurately. The key to fighting complacency is exercising our plans – plans that include the entire neighborhood.

As venue operators we must “MIND THE GAP” and work to close it. You can be sure those who wish to do us harm are minding our security gaps and looking to exploit them.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Gameday Security.