Pope's visit tests security forces

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WASHINGTON - It comes as no surprise that security promises to be extremely tight everywhere Pope Francis goes during his U.S. trip in September - so tight that no one is saying much about it.

The Secret Service, the lead agency developing the security plan, and local law enforcement authorities have declined or not responded to requests by Catholic News Service to discuss any aspect - no matter how general - of security preparations for the pope's busy Sept. 22-27 visit.

The trip has been designated as a "National Security Special Event" by the Secret Service. Surely the trip is giving law enforcement and homeland security agencies a stringent test as they have worked for nearly year to shore up any potential weaknesses in the multimillion-dollar plan that might be exploited.

By law, the "national security" designation for the event automatically puts the Secret Service in charge of security protocols, leaving everyone else to follow along.

That's not all bad, said Manny Gomez, president of MG Security Service in New York.

"This event is going to get more security than a presidential visit because of the 'X factor' and he is an international person," the former FBI special agent said. "It's going to be a huge production because it has to be. We're not going to be the city that loses the pope."

However, no matter how thorough the plan, it's never 100 percent foolproof and if someone is determined enough to get through the protective bubble around Pope Francis, they will find a way, he cautioned.

The key for the Secret Service and its allies at the FBI is making sure any people who are a threat to the pope's safety are under watch.

"When it comes to these events, the intelligence factor is huge," Gomez told Catholic News Service. "We always try to find out if there are any threats, any actionable information we need to act on. For example if there is somebody actually out there threatening the pope, they will be visited by agents to see if that person is a viable threat and that person will be dealt with accordingly."

Beyond such threats, the pope himself poses difficult challenges, especially because he is not averse to deviating from established protocols. Driven by a desire to be in touch with the faithful, Pope Francis has been known to make an impromptu stop every now and then to greet and bless the people of whom he is most fond.

"The pope is truly a man of the people and he loves to go out and press the flesh. He doesn't provide much lead time when he gets off the popemobile, which itself is not very secure," Gomez said.

"That's the most critical time that agents, etc., will have to contend with because that is something that is not planned."

The most detailed plan announced thus far has come from Philadelphia, where Pope Francis will attend the World Meeting of Families. Authorities have announced that an area described as a "traffic box" will be designated in the center city starting 6 p.m. (Eastern time) Sept. 25. How long it will be in effect after the end of the papal Mass Sept. 27 near the Philadelphia Museum of Art has not been determined. Expecting a throng of 1.5 million people, city officials are prepared to continue street closures into Sept. 28 in the area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

All weekend cars will be allowed to travel within the traffic box and leave it but will not be allowed back into the perimeter. The restrictions include personal vehicles and any sort of bus - including motor coaches, school buses, minibuses, RVs and passenger vans with a capacity of eight to 14 people.

Pedestrians and cyclists, however, will face no restrictions leaving and re-entering the traffic box.

In New York, officials are trying to determine if Penn Station, which 600,000 commuters use each weekday, will be closed when Pope Francis celebrates Mass during rush hour Sept. 25 at nearby Madison Square Garden.

Other street closures are a matter of routine to New Yorkers as world dignitaries regularly visit the United Nations.

Information related to Washington's security plans was pending. The pope will be moving around the nation's capital as he meets President Barack Obama at the White House, makes a pass around the Ellipse, celebrates the canonization Mass for Blessed Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, addresses Congress on Capitol Hill and meets homeless people at lunch at a downtown parish.

Eloy Nunez, associate professor of public safety administration at St. Leo University in Florida, said authorities are expected to conduct various sweeps at each venue and along the routes the pope will travel.

Canine units checking for explosives, guards being posted at entry points, helicopters roaming the skies and eagle-eye snipers keeping watch from rooftops are just some of the measures undertaken for visits by dignitaries in cities around the country, said Nunez, a retired Miami-Dade police officer who helped plan the security detail at the 2007 Super Bowl.

Police in each city will play a major role in the Secret Service's plans because the agency has neither the staffing and resources nor the expertise needed for such undertakings.

"The Secret Service is very professional," he said. "They send advance teams. They're there to coordinate and discuss, but the meat and potatoes that do the security for the dignitaries are the local police departments."

In addition to security concerns, authorities must have a mass casualty plan in place, under which evacuation routes are in place and hospitals are on alert should a disaster occur.

"You have to have decontamination plans. You're involving hazmat, fire and rescue (units) and all the hospitals in the area," Nunez said. "And there's the power company on hand."

Both Nunez and Gomez have no doubt that the best plan possible will be in place in each city and that local police will take pride in the effort to keep the pope safe.

Only when the pope enters his jet for the return trip to Rome can the security effort be considered a success.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015