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Speed Street will test city’s safety planning

- cwootson@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, May. 10, 2013

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have “strengthened and tweaked” their security surrounding Food Lion Speed Street, the NASCAR-themed festival, following bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three and left dozens injured.

An estimated 300,000 people – NASCAR diehards in town for the Coca-Cola 600 and Charlotteans drawn by the spectacle and free entertainment – are expected to attend Speed Street, which runs May 23-25.

To protect them, the city has taken additional measures, both public and secret.

New City Manager Ron Carlee has deemed Speed Street an “extraordinary event.” The declaration bans people from bringing a range of items into the festival, such as hammers, fireworks and other things that can be used as weapons. The declaration also gives police officers more latitude to search people who appear to have one of those items. Speed Street was declared an extraordinary event last year too.

“Anytime there’s an event anywhere in the world, I think it makes all of us that are involved in public safety just that much more vigilant,” Carlee said. “It’s a reminder anything can happen anywhere at anytime. And so we’ve really made sure we’ve done everything that we can do.”

Maj. Jeff Estes said officers “will be making full use of the extraordinary event proclamation.”

Police don’t disclose the number of officers that will staff the event. More officers are stationed at the event during high-traffic times, such as concerts featuring high-profile artists, Estes said.

At a news conference announcing the city’s plans, Estes said officers will be positioned in concentric rings extending from the center of the event.

Expect to see officers on foot, bikes and on motorcycles. The department will monitor events from police helicopters. And they’ll make use of a police camera network that was beefed up before the Democratic National Convention last year. Officers have also drafted contingency plans if large-scale problems arise.

And they’re encouraging people to call 911 if they see something suspicious. Deputy Chief Doug Gallant said officers anticipate an increase in calls from the public about suspicious activity.

The Charlotte Fire Department will have 20 members of its hazardous materials team working before and during the Speed Street event, checking for explosives said Deputy Chief Rob Kinniburgh. That’s a slight increase from previous years, he said.

“We’re not going to flood downtown with people,” he said. “We are aware of what happened in Boston, and we’ve informed our folks. We’ll have a strong presence.”

Charlotte becomes the latest city that’s had to give extra scrutiny to safety planning in the wake of the bombings.

Spectators at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, for example, had to leave coolers, cans and glass bottles at the gates, according to ABC News. Hats were permitted, but cameras with detachable lenses weren’t.

Charlote has been criticized for how it handled Speed Street in the past.

At the conclusion of Speed Street in 2011, just a few weeks after the city learned that it would be hosting the 2012 Democratic National Convention, police arrested more than 100 people during civil unrest on uptown streets. One person was fatally shot and another was hospitalized.

Last year’s Speed Street went off relatively smoothly.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson

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