Campus locked down for debate
Though Washington University administrators have experience in planning security measures for past presidential debates, securing the campus for tonight’s vice presidential debate tonight was no easy task.
The importance of debate security became more critical than expected with Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, an unexpected pick that stunned the world and excited voters who previously might not have been excited.
And with Palin shielded from most media contact by the McCain campaign, the vice presidential debate will be the first time voters will see how her credentials stack up directly against those of the Democratic vice presidential nominee, six-term Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).
“I never thought the VP debate would grab the attention of the world like it is. I think it’s based on the Republican Party’s candidate,” Jill Carnaghi, assistant vice chancellor for students and director of campus life, said. “It doesn’t appear to have let up much. Who ever thought that the VP debate would take the spotlight from the three presidential debates?”
After days of preparation and difficulties with funding, the University is hoping that the campus will be secure for another debate, after hosting presidential debates in 1992, 2000 and 2004. Don Strom, chief of the Washington University Police Department (WUPD), has been at the helm of the department’s security efforts for this debate and the 2000 and 2004 debates.
According to Strom, the security measures center around a unified command structure consisting of representatives from WUPD, St. Louis County, St. Louis City, University City and Clayton police departments and the Missouri Highway Patrol, in addition to fire and emergency services representatives.
Police departments in neighboring municipalities may also provide assistance.
“Part of our planning is to plan for a variety of different contingencies, all of which we hope don’t ever occur, but we take them into consideration and staff appropriately,” Strom told Student Life.
The U.S. Secret Service will also have a large presence. Strom noted that there would be a shared responsibility for security between the Secret Service and local law enforcement agencies.
While the planned security measures will likely cause nuisances for students, faculty and campus visitors, University administrators like Carnaghi say the experience of a debate will make the security checkpoints and parking lot closure aggravations worthwhile.
“I’ve had some folks say, ‘One of the most memorable things was being involved in the 2000 or 2004 presidential debate, that I got to see it, I got to be there, or I got to meet Tim Russert or Tom Brokaw,’” Carnaghi said.
Access to campus restricted, lots and streets closed
Yesterday and today, access to campus has been restricted to students, faculty, staff and invited guests. The Office of Residential Life, as in past debates, implemented a no guest policy for students, which ends tomorrow afternoon.
Chancellor Mark Wrighton sent an e-mail to the University community detailing some of the campus restrictions during debate week. The e-mail advises students and staff to carry their ID cards at all times so they can pass through checkpoints.
“We’re going to have a lot of law enforcement people here who are not as familiar with our campus as our officers are, so if they ask somebody for their ID, they’re going to expect to see it,” Strom said.
Security measures have forced the closures of 10 parking lots and portions of Forsyth and Big Bend boulevards, and beginning at 11 a.m., all vehicle traffic entering campus must enter on Brookings Drive via Skinker Boulevard.
“A debate of this size and this importance requires a lot of various staff and media and guests, and it requires a certain amount of parking availability,” Nicholas Stoff, director of Parking and Transportation Services, said. “Some of those lots are [closed] also for security reasons with their distance to the [Athletic Complex].”
With the parking and traffic constraints, Stoff advises people to carpool or use alternative modes of transportation and to give themselves extra time.
A full list of parking restrictions is available at http://parking.wustl.edu.
Security funding difficulties
Security for the 2004 debate cost about $600,000, according to Strom. The University and other agencies involved have in those cases received $300,000 from the federal government in the form of the very competitive Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants.
For this year’s debate, the St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS), a body that handles the St. Louis area’s requests for UASI grants, received several hundred thousand dollars of UASI grants, $300,000 of which STARRS agreed to allocate for the vice presidential debate.
But this past week the federal government withheld the money from use because the grant requires the Homeland Security terror alert level to be orange, or at a high risk of terror attacks. The current level is at yellow, one level lower.
“Certainly we’re disappointed, and it’s a competitive process. You’re always competing against other needs that people have,” Strom said. “It’s also frustrating that you get mixed signals from the start about what was going to be approved and what wasn’t, and after being told that it met the criteria and then being told later that it was not coming after all.”
The University and the other regional police agencies involved will now have to absorb the costs of security. But Strom says that even if the University had received the money, it would have given other agencies funding first.
“We already adopted a attitude internally that if the funding became available [WUPD] was not going to accept the funding. We were going to let the partners on the upside have that first,” Strom said. “It certainly wouldn’t have paid all their costs but it may have been something.”
Strom did not comment on how the costs would be spread among the involved law enforcement agencies, but he said that the number of officers each agency contributes would be one factor.
Regular Upper Row searches not anticipated
Although Greek Life officials recently said that the Secret Service would have the authority to search buildings in close proximity to the Athletic Complex regularly, Strom denied that the Secret Service would conduct regular searches, but it will have the authority to conduct searches if deemed necessary.
“I don’t anticipate any kind of searches that would involve dogs or anything like that,” Strom said. “Obviously if we perceive some sort of threat we would respond to that threat and investigate it.”
But fraternity members are not entirely safe from investigations. Yesterday and today, only the residents of Upper Row are being admitted to the area because crowds pose an additional security risk.
“There are certain stresses on our security measures that having too many people in that area could create,” Strom said.
Administration and students not concerned
Despite the laundry list of security measures, past inconveniences surrounding the debates, have been minor, according to Carnaghi.
“If anything, there were minor inconveniences that people were more than willing to contend with to in order to be part of it all,” the assistant vice chancellor said. “I don’t remember receiving any student complaints. If anything, there was kind of an excitement in the air.”
This debate will be no different. According to Carnaghi, the benefits afforded by the hosting of a debate outweigh the accompanying security inconveniences.
“I think all the benefits and opportunities far outweigh any inconvenience,” Carnaghi said. “From my perspective, the reason we take it on is so students can see firsthand the political process, so they can get involved if they want, they can offer to volunteer.”
“Let’s just hope the weather is good,” Carnaghi added. “That will be the biggest inconvenience.”
Overall, students like senior Adam Cohen, a Student Union senator who lives off campus, are taking the inconveniences in stride.
“Getting onto campus is going to be a little more difficult,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately it is kind of a big cost for Wash. U. But I think that the debate is a great thing in terms of publicity for Wash. U., and I think it’s a great thing in terms of getting students engaged in politics.”