Thursday, September 20, 2018
Public safety

How Tampa Bay's concert industry is reacting to the Vegas shootings

In Tampa, you can drive to the roof of a parking garage and look down on Curtis Hixon Park. In St. Petersburg, two condominium towers loom over Vinoy Park, giving those inside wide-angle sightlines of tens of thousands of concertgoers.

A day after a gunman rained bullets from a hotel window on fans at a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 and wounding more than 500 — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history — those who plan and run similar outdoor events found themselves wondering how to prevent such a tragedy in Tampa Bay.

No one has an answer.

"With this new level of people shooting from afar, there's only so much that we could ever be responsible for doing," said Becky Barnes, the general manager of St. Petersburg club Jannus Live, whose open-air courtyard is lined with private condos and office buildings.

WHAT WE KNOW: Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock

"We have three shows coming this weekend, and I know when I talk to my security, it's probably going to come up. We're probably going to have a conversation about what we would do in that type of scenario. That's really the best we can do, because you can't police every surrounding building, on every floor, in everybody's apartment. It's impossible — and also not legal."

The massacre at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, across the Las Vegas Strip from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, was only the latest violent attack to rattle the live entertainment industry. The fact that the shooter was well outside the security gates was a wrinkle not every law enforcement official has foreseen.

"In the last several years, I can't say that the scenario you had in Vegas was a concern of ours," said Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter. "We're always concerned about a potential sniper, and one that's elevated like that is extremely difficult to respond to. We may not necessarily have a high-rise like Mandalay Bay, but we have condominiums close to Coachman Park. We have the bridge, where somebody could really do some damage with a rifle."

After the Vegas shooting, Slaughter was working to add to the city's existing security plans. Over the last two years, that's been happening more and more.

After terrorists opened fire at an Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris in November 2015, area venues like Ruth Eckerd Hall and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts instituted more thorough bag and metal detection searches, and even put workers through active shooter training.

After two Orlando shootings in June 2016 — one that killed The Voice singer Christina Grimmie as she greeted fans after a concert, and another at the Pulse nightclub the next night — smaller clubs bolstered security efforts. The State Theatre began more stringent wanding and patdown procedures, and Jannus Live banned all large bags.

A May bombing following an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England might be a closer parallel to the Las Vegas attack. As with that incident — executed essentially outside a venue, not inside — those in the concert industry aren't sure what they could have done to prevent it.

"It's a perimeter issue," said Ferdian Jap of Big City Events, which stages numerous food and music events in Curtis Hixon, including the Tampa Bay Wing Fling on Oct. 21. "We're pretty confident we can keep people safe inside. But stuff like this, where it's a half a mile away, I don't know."

Interim Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said the city is "always assessing where our weaknesses are in security at these venues, including the outside."

Ribfest, which each November draws 60,000-plus fans to Vinoy Park, has in recent years upped security in ways not made public, said Tom Whiteman of the Northeast Exchange Club, which organizes the event. But this year, Whiteman said, Ribfest will have only one entrance, and could institute metal-detection wandings. After Las Vegas, the condo towers looming to the west will prompt further security discussions.

"We're going to have to rely on the St. Pete Police," he said. "But something like this is very hard to control. We may have to add an additional layer of security that just watches those buildings."

Smaller-scale events might not have that luxury.

Events around this year's high-profile College Football Playoff had police sweeps and sniper presence, Yap said. But doing that for every show?

"Who pays for it?" He said. "That conversation is going to come up. I'm not sure if every small event can afford a significant increase in (police), if they have to put SWAT teams or snipers in. Hopefully that's not the answer."

The next major outdoor event in Tampa Bay is a concert Wednesday by singer-songwriter Jack Johnson at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. The crowd and stage there are not visible across Interstate 4 from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, whose no-firearms policy bars people with concealed carry permits and off-duty law enforcement.

At Coachman Park, fans could see increased security at the Hispanic Heritage Festival on Oct. 15 and the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Oct. 19-22. Slaughter, like other law enforcement officials, hopes people will flag suspicious behavior, inside or outside the venue.

"This thing that just occurred in Las Vegas is going to be fresh in everybody's mind," he said. "Our goal is not only to be able to prepare to react, but to make people understand that we're prepared to react, and they're safe."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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