Safety for ’12 revelry tops cops’ agenda

More than 180,000 people from throughout metro Atlanta and across the state are expected to crowd into the downtown area on New Year’s Eve to watch a parade, attend a football game and witness the Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta, welcoming in 2012. A sizable police presence, street closures and high-tech cameras will try to keep things orderly.

The event hasn’t always been safe. In recent years, it has been marred by the stabbing death of a teenager, celebratory gunfire that struck a reveler and malfunctioning MARTA escalators that injured several people.

On Saturday, more than 250 officers will be assigned to the Peach Drop celebration, with extra officers manning downtown entry points that were blocked during previous celebrations, said Atlanta police Maj. Lane Hagin, who will oversee security. Hagin will deploy about the same number of officers as the previous year.

Police have advised people to ride MARTA or cabs because of the anticipated crowds. Final MARTA trains will depart the Five Points station at 2 a.m.

Police will search bags of people entering the Underground Atlanta corridor beginning at 5 p.m. Bags, coolers, picnic baskets, pets, alcohol, bicycles, skates and skateboards are prohibited from the Peach Drop area.

Street closures will begin with the Chick-fil-A Bowl parade, which runs from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., down Peachtree Street from Ralph McGill Boulevard to International Boulevard, and then down International and across Centennial Olympic Park Drive. Police will restrict traffic around Underground Atlanta beginning at 4 p.m.

Hagin said violence has seldom been a problem at Atlanta’s New Year’s Eve celebration, though last year’s stabbing death of 14-year-old Reuben Hand in the Five Points MARTA station was a notable exception.

The teen was accused of trying to steal money and a cellphone from a man who allegedly retaliated.

“In past years, I can’t remember there being a lot of crime, and I think it is because we work really hard to manage the crowd,” Hagin said.

Aimee Buff Muniz has a much different view of the event crowd control.

Attending her first, and last, Peach Drop in 2005, Muniz was struck in the neck by a stray bullet that lodged near her spine. The bullet was believed to be fired randomly during the celebration.

Covered with blood and in intense pain, Muniz and her fiance pushed through the crowd to find police and were told the officers were too busy trying to control unruly celebrants to help.

“They thought somebody had stabbed me,” said Muniz, 33, of McDonough. “They made me walk to an ambulance several blocks away because the ambulance couldn’t get to me because of all the people. People were just going crazy.”

On New Year’s Eve in 2008, with a huge crowd attending the Chick-fil-A Bowl, three MARTA escalators failed, spilling several people and injuring 11.

MARTA officials blamed the accidents on rowdy revelers jumping on the escalators, but an investigation showed the mishaps were caused by a faulty braking system and other worn equipment.

Safety mechanisms on MARTA escalators recently have been checked at Lenox, Five Points, Peachtree Center and the Vine City stations, each serving the Georgia Dome and Philips Arena, MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris said. Eight escalator technicians will be on duty, and transit staff will monitor the crowds on the escalators.

Atlanta police also will monitor the New Year’s Eve activities from a recently opened video integration center that can access thousands of public and private security cameras trained on the city, Maj. Chris Leighty said.

Police will erect a Skywatch tower at Peachtree and Wall streets that puts an officer with surveillance cameras and a loudspeaker 30 feet above the crowd.

Improvements in camera technology have vastly improved surveillance for events such as the Peach Drop, which bodes well for crowd control, said Robert McCrie, an expert on crowd security at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“There is a whole host of managerial details that can be done in advance that will make these events safer,” McCrie said. “A large crowd doesn’t have to equal trouble. It can equal a good time for a lot of people.”

Mona Mia, an Augusta native who recently moved to Clarkston, said she was looking forward to attending the downtown celebration that she previously has watched only on TV.

“Everybody knows about the Peach Drop,” Mia said. “The only thing I’m concerned about is parking. My plan is to use public transportation.”

Kareem Hancock, 27, of Decatur has attended previous Peach Drops, but will stay away this year because he thinks crowds will be bigger than usual. However, he’s not worried about his welfare.

“I think more people are staying local; it could be too crowded for me,” Hancock said. “I do think it’s going to be safer this year because there has been more police [vigilance] lately.”