Police prepare for election night
By Michael Tarm
CHICAGO — Chicago authorities are bracing for as many as a million people in downtown Grant Park Tuesday night to cheer on Barack Obama as election returns come in, a potential celebration and security headache.
Police in Chicago and elsewhere around the country say intense interest in the election and the possibility of large crowds in major cities are leading them to take crowd-control precautions usually seen during Super Bowls and World Series. In addition, local police will be providing security at polling stations to keep things running smoothly on Election Day.
Security preparations in Obama's hometown include orders for off-duty firefighters to haul their helmets, breathing tanks and other gear home now until after the election in case of any emergency. All Chicago officers have also had their days off canceled and are required to work Tuesday, Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis said.
"I'm extraordinarily confident that we can keep Senator Obama safe, that we can keep the citizens of Chicago safe and that we can keep the neighborhoods safe." He added later that, "We always prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Other parts of the country are thinking through security as well.
In Los Angeles, police typically deploy extra squad cars at polling places on Election Day and Tuesday will be no different, said Michael Downing, the Los Angeles Police Department's deputy chief. But he added that nothing suggests "people are going to riot or conduct themselves inappropriately depending on who gets in."
In Detroit, most of the city's 3,000 or so officers will be working Election Day, said police spokesman James Tate.
"That's any presidential election," he said.
Asked if preparations are more intense than in previous years because of the heightened emotions surrounding this election, Steve Martin, chief sheriff's deputy in Franklin County, Ohio, said, "I think we take all of those into consideration."
A permit application for the Chicago event said 65,000 spectators would likely show up, but many more without tickets are expected to arrive for what Obama backers hope will be a celebration of the first black American elected to the presidency. John McCain is planning a smaller election-night party in his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz.
The huge Chicago crowd, unhappy or not, could pose usual hazards. Police have imposed sweeping street closures and parking bans that will effectively shut down the city center late Tuesday.
Mayor Richard Daley told reporters early that he would have preferred the rally at a stadium, where crowd control would be easier. But he said with a laugh, "Could you see me saying 'no' to Senator Obama? Give me a break. I'm not that dumb."
Some church leaders, including the Rev. Albert Tyson, encouraged people to stay away from the event if they don't have a ticket. Faith leaders around the city, like Tyson, are hosting neighborhood viewing parties.
"One of the things that Chicago is known for, besides broad shoulders, is commonsense," he said. "Common sense says if you don't have a ticket, don't show up at the affair."
Daley estimated the cost to the city of helping to stage the event - including adding more police and extra transit trains - at around $2 million, and the Obama campaign has said it will pay all those costs.
The importance of Election Day security was driven home by the recent arrest of two white supremacists accused of plotting to kill Obama and dozens of other blacks, said Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's Washington, D.C. bureau.
"We've unfortunately seen there's a few fringe people who want to create havoc, so it makes sense to have extra security," he said. "The flip side's that is that any heavy-handed presence of law enforcement at polls could be intimidating."
He added that anyone who might suggest Obama supporters in black communities might react violently if their candidate loses in a vote that is initially too close to call - a la the 2000 presidential race - may reveal their own racial biases.
"It does raise some racial insensitivity concerns," he said.
Downing, who heads the Los Angeles department's counterterrorism bureau, put more emphasis on threats of a terrorist attack.
"When you look around the world ... you see al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations want to sway an election," said Downing. "We've hardened iconic targets with technology and people."