published Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

David Cook: Security on the river

Riverbend is like a pile of kindling that, each summer, refuses to light.

All the ingredients are there: 100,000 people sweating on a postage stamp-size piece of downtown asphalt, everyone agreeing to some unwritten social code that requires you to drink five beers every six songs while bumping into more strangers in the night than Sinatra ever sang of.

(Isn't it great?)

Yet each year, things are snow-cone cool. People, usually, get along pretty well together.

And if they don't, a hundred cops are right there on patrol.

At least, that's how it's been in the past.

The old arrangement -- cops keeping Riverbend safe -- may disappear faster than the first bite of corn dog as a new arrangement is being cooked up that could replace officers with private security guards.

"We are now configuring a plan that will include a mix of officers from Chattanooga Police Department, sheriff's deputies from Hamilton County and some private security firms," said Amy Morrow, director of public relations for Friends of the Festival.

Now configuring? Riverbend starts in 30 days and security is being tinkered with?

"We're a business, and we have to evaluate things from year to year," she said.

What happened? Did some new security threat emerge? Did someone decide the old plan was no longer working?

"I don't know. I was not in the room," she said.

Me neither. But I have a hunch.

In years past, Riverbend has gotten free security. Their schedules rearranged to accommodate the festival, police officers -- with all their expertise, equipment and training -- worked Riverbend instead of their normal beat, which clearly means two things.

First: taxpayers paid their normal salary to work security at Riverbend.

The second thing? Pssst ... lean in closer. We don't need to say this too loudly.

If cops are working Riverbend ... then they're not working your neighborhood.

That's why I'd wager a front-of-the-line Porta Toilet pass why this is happening. Somebody -- the police chief? Mayor Andy Berke? -- said adios to such an arrangement.

Police officers? We're not pulling you off your beat anymore. You can volunteer to work Riverbend on your off nights.

And Friends of the Festival? You've got to pay those officers for their all-important work.

So maybe this led Friends of the Festival -- a group that reported more than $3 million in accumulated earnings in 2011 -- to look for cheaper security?

"You can't put a price on safety," said Morrow. "That is our main concern. To make Riverbend as safe as possible."

Like I said, just a hunch. But, why else would you reconfigure security at the 11th hour?

Last year, there were 32 arrests and 75 ejections from the festival. What happens this year if security guards, who don't have arrest powers, encounter a gunman? Or a bomb? Or a drunken bozo who wants to play Ultimate Fighter?

If things get hairy, the security guards will have to call for backup. How far away are police? Will they operate on the same radio frequency as the hired security guards? Can they make it through the crowd quickly enough?

Morrow said the plan had not been finalized and would have to be approved by police. She couldn't give any numbers on expected costs of private security guards, nor the ratio of officers to guards.

"Safety is a top priority," she said.

Good.

Riverbend is like a social contract. We lend you our downtown streets, and in return, we get one of the best festivals in North America.

And we never worry about our safety, trusting that the best and most responsible decisions have been made on our behalf.

After all, what's the worst that can happen?

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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