When the gates to Churchill Downs open for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby early Saturday, law enforcement officers patrolling the event will be ready.
The first leg of the Triple Crown has drawn more than 160,000 spectators each of the last two years — 50,000 more than any Super Bowl has ever drawn — but the big race is just the tip of the iceberg of what is known as the Kentucky Derby Festival.
In the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15 that killed three people and left more than 200 others injured, the importance of securing large-scale open-air events is at an all-time high.
Louisville Metro Police Assistant Chief Kenton Buckner is confident they are ready and spoke to Officer.com about the pre-planning that is done to prepare for the two-week extravaganza that consists of close to 50 events.
Thunder Over Louisville, an air show and fireworks display that draws more than a half million spectators, kicked off the events on April 20.
"Coming on the heels of the Boston Marathon incident, it was kind of challenging for us to make sure that we dotted our i's and crossed our t's to make sure that the public would be safe for the event," Buckner said.
The Importance of Pre-Planning
During the months leading up to the events, police officials meet with the organizers of the Kentucky Derby Festival and Churchill Downs security personnel to put a plan in place.
"In those meetings we discussed things we encountered last year, look for opportunities for improvement and look at things where we may need additional personnel or move people from where they were last year because we determined we didn't need them there," Buckner said.
There are about seven to 10 venues police are responsible for just during the Oaks and Derby races, making the ability to ensure the proper equipment and resources are available a top priority.
"We have a pre-plan meeting at some of the venues we will be responsible for to make sure everything is there that we will need to protect the event," he said.
The week following the Boston Marathon bombings, Kentucky Derby officials announced that backpacks, duffel bags, large purses, coolers and other items were banned from the infield of Churchill Downs during the races.
Buckner said that other precautions are in place and that the slogan "If you see something, say something" has been used at all of the events to encourage spectators to watch for unusual and suspicious behavior.
"Our goal is to try to make sure that everyone is safe and that they are engaged with us in our protection of them during the security of the event," he said.
Policing the Derby Festival
For all of the events, law enforcement officials break down operations into three branches: Traffic, Security and Intelligence.
The Traffic branch is responsible for controlling access to the immediate areas around the event and also incoming and exiting traffic before and after the event.
"We also make sure we have emergency routes in and out of the event area and make sure that the people who reside in the impacted area and those visiting will be able to get around and do the things they would normally like to do in the city," he said.
The Security branch tries to make sure the event is secure and includes a number of state, local and federal agencies that assist Louisville Metro Police with the event including the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, Kentucky National Guard, Kentucky State Police and a number of other agencies.
Buckner said that for Thunder Over Louisville, there were about 1,000 officers on patrol, at the parade held on Thursday there were expected to be about 700 and during the Kentucky Oaks race on Friday and the Derby on Saturday, there will be close 1,2000 officers assigned.
Louisville Metro Police has just less than 1,100 sworn officers to police a city with a population of about 750,000 people.