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Atlanta’s top cop on Super Bowl security: ‘Know your city has an A-game’

Atlanta’s Police Chief Erika Shields had only been Atlanta’s top cop for two months in February 2017 when she got some news she wasn’t expecting. A team of her officers had just returned from Houston, which hosted Super Bowl LI with a message:

“We’re behind.”

If Atlanta was going to be ready to host a third Super Bowl of its own, the city had better get busy. Several years of security planning took place before Houston hosted the game, the city’s third Super Bowl, according to the FBI.

“From that point on, we locked it in,” Shields said Wednesday. “I have a core team in place. The Department has stepped up, and the next thing we realized, the next phase was ‘Oh my God, we need a lot of help,’ and every one of you said yes.”

Shields spoke at Wednesday’s Executive Public Safety Tabletop Exercise at the Georgia World Congress Center. Atlanta police and representatives from a range of other agencies spent the day preparing a vast security plan for Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 4 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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The head of security for the NFL, Cathy Lanier, talks with the media at an Executive Public Safety Tabletop Exercise at the Georgia World Congress Center on Wednesday, November 5, 2018. The exercise was intended as preparation for 10 days of activities surrounding the Super Bowl on Feb. 4.  (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Shields thanked all of the law enforcement agencies that have partnered together in advance of pro football’s biggest game. The FBI, GBI, Homeland Security, Georgia State Patrol, MARTA police, NFL security, Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, and World Congress Center police were among the agencies represented at Wednesday’s event to discuss the what-if scenarios involved with Atlanta hosting not just the game, but the 10 days of events leading up to kickoff.

Tens of thousands of people will descend on downtown Atlanta in just 66 days.

Amy Patterson, vice president of operations and logistics for the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, said the group will prepare for everything from suspicious packages, protests and even mass causalities — all possibilities when more than 1 million visitors arrive in town, beginning Jan. 26.

“Today’s an opportunity for us to exercise those plans through about eight scenarios that we’ll talk about, things that could happen during 10-day operational period of the Super Bowl,” Patterson said.

With just under two months to go until the game, Atlanta is ready, according to those attending Wednesday’s meeting.

MARTA Police Department officers talk before the start of the Super Bowl LIII Executive Public Safety Tabletop Exercise at the Georgia World Congress Center Wednesday, November 5, 2018.  (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

“I’ve seen different events throughout the country in different positions I’ve held, and I’ve never seen an area where law enforcement, and also the private community, work better together than here in Atlanta,” Chris Hacker, FBI Atlanta special agent in charge, said.

But the work — and communication between law enforcement agencies — must continue in the coming weeks as the big day gets closer, according to Cathy Lanier, head of NFL security.

“This is really where the rubber meets the road, just before the rubber meets the road,” she said. “This is really the kind of a dry-run rehearsal for us.”

FBI Atlanta’s Special Agent in Charge Chris Hacker talks with the media before the start of the Super Bowl LIII Executive Public Safety Tabletop Exercise at the Georgia World Congress Center Wednesday, November 5, 2018.  (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

After opening remarks, Wednesday’s event was closed to the public and the media. But Shields said the results of the behind-the-scenes work will be worth it for Atlanta.

“Take pride in what Atlanta’s doing,” she said. “We’re hosting the Super Bowl, which is a fantastic event. Enjoy it and know that your city has an A-game, and they’re ready to execute.”

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