For Cops, It’s History — and Business as Usual

Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:56pm

For Capitol Police officers, Barack Obama’s inauguration means 16-hour shifts, naps on cots and handling record-breaking crowds in freezing weather.

They’re psyched.

“Even if they put me outside, I won’t mind,” said Officer Ciji Simmons, who joined the force in November. “I’m going to be a part of history.”

Capitol Police officials stress that the inauguration is nothing new for a force that helps handle the State of the Union, presidential conventions and every inauguration.

But the historic nature of the event has made some officers more excited than in past years and perhaps more willing to deal with the logistical nightmare of countless VIPs, record-breaking crowds and a half-dozen law-enforcement agencies. It’s a welcome break from their usual days of guarding doors and welcoming tourists.

“The historical part of this is big for me,” said one officer, who added that he was more excited this time around than for the 2005 inauguration of President George W. Bush. “It’s a proud moment for me and my family.”

The officer, who asked not to be named, said preparations for the 2005 inauguration went smoothly, while this time around, “more is going on.”

Obama’s inauguration presents a few unique challenges, said Capitol Police Assistant Chief Dan Nichols — including massive crowds and the fact that it’s taking place during a time of war. All together, officers are putting in an estimated 37,000 hours of overtime for rehearsals and Inauguration Day.

But officials can still use a tweaked plan from Bush’s 2005 inauguration, Nichols said.

“The agencies and the city … are extraordinarily good at handling these types of events,” he said. “We have a strong team and a strong plan.”

That plan includes a double layer of security — one that restricts only vehicles and another that restricts everyone but ticket-holders and media to the swearing-in.

It was unclear on Friday exactly where police will set up the perimeter for ticket-holders to the swearing-in, but maps from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies showed screening areas as far west as Third Street Northwest and as far east as South Capitol Street.

Once inside, the 240,000 ticket-holders will see a stage that took 22,000 sheets of plywood, two dozen workers and several months to build. And, unlike the general public on the National Mall or at the parade, they’ll reportedly have the benefit of one portable toilet for every 50 people, substantially more than outside the ticketed area.

The security for that area also promises to be the tightest. About 1,600 Capitol Police officers — plus an untold number of officers from the Secret Service, the FBI and the military — will be on duty.

Nichols said the new Capitol Visitor Center will be closed to the public and instead used to house security officials.

Everyone who enters the Capitol will have gone through a background check and will only enter after security officials have swept every nook and cranny.

In comparison, media credentials for the National Mall are general and not tied to any specific person.

State-of-the-art technology will also allow security officials to keep track of crowds and potential threats.

Jeff Nestel-Patt, the director of corporate marketing for Axsys Technologies Inc. — a company that provides surveillance equipment to the military — said modern cameras can provide sweeping views of crowds or focused pictures of a single person.

Nestel-Patt said he didn’t know what specific equipment would be used today. But, he added, if the District is like other major U.S. cities, it will have access to street-corner cameras for close-ups, helicopter cameras for a wider view and night-vision cameras for images that can’t be seen by the human eye.

“You can bet that the organizations that are being tapped are going to be using the best available technology,” Nestel-Patt said. “In D.C., I’m sure that the local Capitol Police and the Washington, D.C., police already have a very extensive network of closed-circuit televisions, especially on intersections.”

Indeed, the Capitol Police have used their closed-circuit system in the past to spot suspicious people and coordinate their response. When Michael Gorbey walked near the Capitol almost a year ago, shotgun in hand, officers were able to track him down using cameras attached to nearby buildings.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said staffers and visitors can expect to be thoroughly searched.

“People are going to go through magnetometers and they are going to be wanded,” she said. “That’s just the reality of the times.”

On Friday, however, most officers still didn’t know where they would be posted — a result, some said, of the department’s desire to be as flexible as possible.

All officers were scheduled to report for duty at 3 a.m. today, with some sleeping the night on cots in the CVC. Driving home for a nap isn’t feasible for officers working as late as 10:30 p.m. on Monday, a schedule that allows them only about four hours of sleep.

Many staffers also planned to spend Monday night in a Congressional office building. About 300 are volunteers for the inaugural committee and are required to be on hand early for jobs as escorts, messengers and press assistants.

Members have it a bit easier. “Key Congressional people” get the benefit of shuttles to the inauguration, Nichols said. That plan was announced at a Friday press conference after Members worried they wouldn’t make it through all the road and bridge closures.

With that final wrinkle handled, Feinstein declared the “long journey” of inauguration planning nearly done — from the luncheon menu to the security details.

“We’ve gone over every exigency we can think of and I believe we are ready,” she said. “I’m as confident as I can be.”