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Pittsburgh emerges from G-20 with hardly a scratch

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By Mike Wereschagin Jeremy Boren Jill Greenwood
Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009
 

After 48 hours as one of the biggest targets in the world, Pittsburgh emerged Saturday morning looking no worse than it does after a Steelers Super Bowl victory.

The masses didn't storm the gates. Terrorists didn't strike. The city didn't burn. Police arrested 193 people during protests associated with the Group of 20 economic summit. A few minor fires were reported. After the Steelers' Super Bowl victory in February, 120 were arrested and 134 fires were set. At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, 1,700 were arrested.

"We were able to deliver the safest international event in this country, if not the world. It shows anything is possible in Pittsburgh," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said Friday.

Had it gone badly, blame likely would have fallen on city Public Safety Director Mike Huss, a former firefighter whose heavy-lidded eyes yesterday bespoke of one of the longest weeks of his life. While the Secret Service ran security for the main event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Huss coordinated a deployment of law enforcement officers who pulled off what other cities couldn't: a bloodless G-20.

A lower-than-expected influx of protesters meant police had the guns and the numbers. About 6,000 officers deployed throughout the city, compared to 5,000 protesters.

Police and federal agents monitored activists' preparations throughout the spring and summer. On Web sites and Twitter feeds, activists threatened greater damage than they delivered. More than 10,000 protested the London G-20 summit in April. Why the Pittsburgh Summit drew perhaps half as many remains a happy mystery for Huss.

"I don't know why they stayed away," he said.

Months of planning preceded the brief summit. Since President Obama's May announcement that Pittsburgh would host the gathering, security planners worked to strike a delicate balance. They had to be ready for high-probability, low-consequence events such as protests and low-probability, high-consequence events such as terrorist attacks.

"I didn't want any hiccups," Huss said.

A team assembled to rethink the city's policing needs. One of its recommendations resulted in a $200,000 purchase of four Long Range Acoustic Devices. The so-called sound cannons are loud enough to disrupt a person's vision. They were designed to combat high-seas threats such as Somali pirates and have been deployed at military bases in Iraq.

One was used Thursday against U.S. civilians during a protest for what is believed to be the first time.

As the week began, months of planning gave way to a flurry of last-minute action, decisions and changes.

"We were literally getting insurance right up until Friday, Monday or Tuesday of (last) week," Huss said. Lexington Insurance Company — which specializes in "catastrophic liability," according to its Web site — was the only company willing to insure the city's police during the summit.

Only six officers suffered injuries during the week, and they were minor — dehydration, a dislocated shoulder and a lacerated finger, Huss said. Paramedics did not transport any protesters to hospitals, he said.

Wednesday night, officers from around the country attended a four-hour training session and were deputized by the mayor. They were deployed the next morning in an unfamiliar city to confront an unknown crowd.

Where to deploy the officers, who came from 65 law enforcement agencies, wasn't decided until the last minute, Huss said.

Decisions were informed by covert intelligence gathered by other agencies operating within the city, Huss said. He declined to give specifics.

"A lot of that is things I can't speak for," Huss said.

False reports streamed in.

An Internet video appearing to show soldiers abducting a protester sparked outrage, though it turned out to be state police snatching the protester police accused of being the week's most destructive. A gunshot victim found during a security sweep of a motorcade route led to rumors the Secret Service killed someone. Police talked over the radio about a person climbing the One Mellon Center building and protesters who breached the security barrier around the convention center, neither of which happened.

Some plans failed outright, such as the city's rental of a Strip District lot as a venue for protesters.

"We spent $28,000 to rent that lot for 15 people from Tibet," Huss said.

Other aspects went almost impossibly well. Thousands of police cars — many driven by out-of-towners — whizzed through Pittsburgh's labyrinthine streets, and none got into an accident.

Wednesday brought the week's most audacious protest when Greenpeace activists hung a climate change banner from the West End Bridge and were stopped before doing the same on the Fort Pitt Bridge.

"I expected banners from somewhere," Huss said.

Thursday afternoon, protesters marched illegally, and several of the crowds turned ugly. As one large group, wielding signs and wearing black bandanas over their faces, marched into Bloomfield, police got the sort of backup that doesn't come in most other cities.

People came out of their homes, businesses and bars along Liberty Avenue, carrying baseball bats and pickaxes, screaming at the protesters to leave and telling them they "aren't going to mess up Bloomfield," police on the scene said.

Huss said yesterday those were some of his favorite reports of the week.

"I love it," Huss said. "We've had a lot of those reports. 'This is our house.' That's how I classify those residents. 'This is our house, and you don't come into our house and do this.' It was with great pride that we saw those residents."

Crime was "way, way down" during the summit, he said.

Perhaps, Huss mused, "the folks we usually deal with were on our side on this one." The huge police presence, Humvees rumbling through the streets and black-clad men standing on rooftops with binoculars probably didn't hurt either.

"It wasn't the time to break the law," Huss said.

Even medical calls dropped sharply. There were times when every ambulance in the city sat idle, Huss said.

Friday morning, as motorcades prepared to rush heads of state to the convention center, security forces changed their communications plan, altering frequencies and limiting the number of people who could have radios on at one time, Huss said. Microphones got stuck on police radios the night before, clogging airwaves and hampering communication, he said.

The greatest potential for tragedy occurred Friday, when several thousand marchers walked for miles through militarized streets, often inches away from baton-wielding police encased in body armor.

Not a pane of glass was broken.

"I got to tell you," Huss said, "to have a parade from Oakland to the North Side like we did, and not have any damage is a credit to the protesters and those that were in that march, and our police agencies."

 

 
 


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