It will create an epic traffic jam, even for Atlanta. An estimated 1 million visitors are expected to hit town for the Super Bowl, the biggest game in sports.
And though they won’t all have tickets to the game on Feb. 3, fans will be lured to 10 days of concerts and other events around the city.
Without divulging the extent of security measures in place, and without talking publicly about the disasters they have prepared to face, the Atlanta Police Department and numerous other law agencies say they are ready to keep all of those people safe.
Atlanta leaders have visited the two most recent Super Bowl host cities for guidance, held countless planning meetings, and are ready for anything, according to the law enforcement agencies and the NFL. Planning began for Super Bowl LIII even before NFL owners voted in May 2016 to bring the big game to Atlanta for a third time.
Within weeks of her promotion to top cop for the Atlanta Police Department — and with two years before the city’s Super Bowl — Chief Erika Shields learned the city was already running behind on security planning for the game. Now, with just weeks to go until kickoff, a security plan is in place that includes local, state and federal law enforcement.
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“Oh, we’re more than ready,” Shields said at a recent planning event. “We’ve been preparing for two years, and at this point we’re ready to just execute on our game plan.”
Learning from Minneapolis, Houston
After 10 days of Super Bowl frenzy wrapped up in February, the face of Minneapolis police returned home at 4 a.m. after the big game.
“My wife looked at me and said, ‘You can breathe,’” John Elder told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“No, not until we get these people out of this town,” Elder replied.
Elder, a licensed officer in Minnesota, serves as the director of public affairs for Minneapolis police and was part of countless meetings leading up to the 2018 game. According to the FBI, security efforts at the 2018 Super Bowl included the largest number of federal officers in the game’s 52-year history. No major security incidents were reported, according to Elder.
“We did not have any of those ‘Oh drat!’ moments because we were willing to learn and really listen to other people to find out what works and what doesn’t work,” Elder said.
Besides visiting Minneapolis, Atlanta officers also visited 2017 Super Bowl host Houston, within weeks of Shields becoming chief.
“Our team came back from Houston and said, ‘We’re behind.’” Shields recalled. “I was about two months as a police chief, and I thought how can I be behind already and the Super Bowl is two years off?” Shields said.
It was time to kick planning into high gear, and APD joined various other law enforcement agencies — including the GBI, FBI, Homeland Security and World Congress Center police — to get going. Atlanta had previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1994 and 2000. But the 2019 game would literally be a whole new ballgame.
At an early December meeting hosted by the NFL, Atlanta’s Assistant Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it’s hard to compare current security challenges to those from nearly two decades ago.
“Reason being the world has changed,” Bryant said. “We see different threat levels. Our technology has changed, and so we’re here to see how well we are prepared to address today’s event.”
NFL pleased with preparations
In October, the team tasked with keeping Super Bowl crowds safe submitted its plan to the NFL. The collaboration between various agencies has been key, according to Amy Patterson, operations and logistics vice president for the Super Bowl Host Committee. Plus, Atlanta has hosted various other big events, including the recent SEC championship college football game. The first week of December, the NFL returned to town for a workshop to discuss a variety of “what if” scenarios. The event was closed to the public and the media.
“Suspicious packages, protests, it runs the gamut from the simple scenarios up to what happens if we have a mass casualty in the stadium,” Patterson said. “What’s exciting today is to see all the different agencies around the table together in the same room talking about how they partner and how they get through these issues and scenarios together as one team, not as individual agencies.”
So what about when it’s time for the real thing? Much of the security will be behind the scenes, according to law enforcement leaders. There will be one “ground zero” command center, along with 13 incident command centers around the city, meaning constant communication will be key.
The Atlanta police department already has several security measures in place that can be utilized, including 200 cameras around the city and 100 “ShotSpotter” devices, which detect gunfire.
Also, a new cellphone app called “See Something, Send Something” allows users to instantly upload pictures or text anything suspicious to police. The app was implemented by the Georgia Department of Public Safety, along with the GBI and GEMA.
Law enforcement officers will be ready, Hacker said. But keeping the city and visitors safe will take more than just those in uniform.
“The eyes and ears of the public are so important… We really depend on the businesses. We depend on the private citizens. We depend on people seeing things on social media,” Hacker said. “We depend on anybody that sees anything that just doesn’t seem right. We depend on them to let us know.”
The time spent planning will pay off, Elder said. His advice to his Atlanta law enforcement counterparts is simple: “Have fun and enjoy it.”
“I know they’ll be on their toes,” Elder said. “It will be great.”