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Gasparilla

Tampa takes cue from Boston, heightens Gasparilla security

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Published:   |   Updated: January 16, 2014 at 09:39 PM

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TAMPA — Hundreds of thousands of people will watch the Gasparilla parades this year, and plenty of surveillance cameras and police will be watching them. Unlike in previous years, though, the focus this year will be on preventing problems more serious than public drunkenness or inappropriate behavior.

Tampa police will be using measures like bomb-sniffing dogs and increased camera surveillance to guard against attacks like the bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon in April, Chief Jane Castor said at a Thursday news conference.

“The incident at the Boston Marathon changed the landscape of every large-scale event throughout the United States,” she said.

Gasparilla in Tampa certainly qualifies as a large-scale event. Gasparilla includes a variety of running events, a pirate invasion and a series of parades that draws more than a half-million people.

In previous years, law enforcement focused mostly on dealing with drunken, boorish behavior, underage imbibers and making sure people who were drinking stayed in designated areas. One of the biggest problems each year was drunken revelers urinating in the yards along the parade route.

This year, the focus is on making the Gasparilla events as safe as possible, though police stress there is no indication anything like what happened in Boston nine months ago will happen here.

“There are no threats,” Castor said, “no indication we will have any problems whatsoever.”

The chief said she attended a briefing at which Boston and Massachusetts public safety officials outlined what they did in the wake of the explosions during the marathon and what might have been done to prevent the attack.

“We heard first-hand what worked and what didn’t work,” she said.

Castor said measures taken this year include a string of portable video cameras — first used during the Republican National Convention in 2012 — placed all along the parades’ routes, monitored by police looking for suspicious behavior or items. Explosives-sniffing dogs will meander through the route and be walked around each of the 140 parade floats that will rumble down Bayshore Boulevard during the Parade of Pirates, the main parade, on Jan. 25.

Elevated cubicles will be placed along the route, with police officers watching the crowd from above.

“Cops in a box,” the chief said.

Everyone marching or riding in the parade must be credentialed, and 40 extra police officers have been assigned to the festival, she said.

The parade routes are broken down into sections, and each division has its own squad of officers, including bomb detecting dogs, tactical response team members and an intelligence officer, she said.

A public awareness program has been in the works for a few months, urging people to report any suspicious behavior to working officers, all of whom will be wearing bright yellow vests.

“We feel we will have a lot more calls,” Castor said, and that’s fine with her.

“If you see something,” she said, “say something.”

She said parade-goers should download the Tampa Police Department’s mobile app onto their smart phones and if they see something suspicious, take a photograph and submit it directly to the parade command center through the app.

Police say they will continue to monitor drunken behavior during the festival. Castor said an educational program presented in the universities and colleges and high schools over the past few years has worked and none of the party-goers arrested over the past couple of years have been students at those schools.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough school district Superintendent MaryEllen Elia have collaborated to record a telephone message that will be sent out to all high school seniors in the district.

“The message is have fun, but be safe,” Elia said. “In past years, students have responded.”

“Responsibility matters,” said James C. Von Thron, with Ye Mystic Krewe, which throws the event. “Respect is the key. We want to address irresponsible behavior for those not only in the parades and at the parades, but for those who live in the nearby neighborhoods.”

The Gasparilla festival begins this weekend with the Children’s Gasparilla Parade on Saturday afternoon.

Castor said the security measures will be applied for all parades and festivities and said much of the proactive surveillance relies on the eyes of the public.

“If you see anything suspicious or unusual, report it,” she said. “We want you to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

“We are planning to have a very safe and successful event,” Castor said. “We want everyone to go home with a neck-full of beads after a very good time.” kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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