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LI festival organizers make security a top priority

Concertgoers walk toward the stage at the Great

Concertgoers walk toward the stage at the Great South Bay Music Festival in Patchogue on July 19.  Credit: Corey Sipkin

Eric Arshravan took a deep breath when he heard about the mass shooting last weekend at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, one of the best known in the country. 

He knew right away that he would have to revamp the already-tight security plan for his own Famous Food Fest next Saturday and Sunday in Riverhead. 

At the garlic festival, a 19-year-old man cut a hole in a security fence and took aim at festivalgoers with a military-style semi-automatic rifle, killing three and injuring a dozen.

What happened in Gilroy, an agricultural town of nearly 58,000, could just as easily have happened in Port Washington, Oyster Bay, Mattituck or the dozens of other places on Long that have fairs and festivals every summer, security experts said.

For festival organizers, safety is the top priority. Some have the measures in place that they want. Others, like Arshravan, are beefing up patrols and putting in more barriers. 

"This is the just day and age we live in," Arshravan said. "We need to keep an eye on things more than ever before."

Protecting outdoor venues 

The Garlic Festival is held every year at a 51-acre community park on the outskirts of Gilroy.

Organizers had erected a perimeter fence and made festivalgoers pass through a metal detector at the front gate. Police officers searched their bags. Others patrolled the site on foot and by horseback and motorcycle.

For experts, the Gilroy shooting illustrates just how difficult it is to make fairs and festivals safe because they are big, open and accessible to so many people.

"Outdoor locations are an absolute nightmare to prevent something from happening," said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. "With open spaces, there are so many points of entry that law enforcement need to cover."

Key to securing fairs and festivals, Giacalone said, is limiting the number of gates and having an elevated spot where law enforcement can monitor activity. Experts also recommended using surveillance cameras and police patrols, and monitoring social media activity for threats.

"You need to be thinking two steps ahead at all times," Giacalone said. "The threats can come from anywhere there are large groups of people now."

But heightened security adds up, said Harvey Kushner, chairman of Long Island University's criminal justice department. Examples are private security guards and technology like drones and facial recognition to monitor crowds.

"The better the protection, the higher the cost," said Kushner, an anti-terrorism expert. "And the larger the area, the more difficult it is to patrol."

Different security challenges 

A carnival in a church parking lot. Street fairs. Road races. A beer festival. Outdoor concerts.

Long Island has them all. And each has different security challenges. 

Anyone, for example, can go in and out of a carnival, but nobody can get into a concert without a ticket.   

Tens of thousands of Long Islanders hungry for an Italian sausage or ricotta-filled cannoli show up every year at the “Best Feast in the East” festival put on by St. Rocco’s Roman Catholic Church in Glen Cove. This year's festival started Wednesday and ends Sunday. 

The fundraiser doesn't have a single entry point where bags can be checked. Goers can enter from a number of roads in the neighborhood.

Glen Cove police provide the security. Plainclothes and uniformed officers, all trained in active shooter scenarios, patrol the neighborhood and monitor the crowds from above, Police Chief William Whitton said. 

"They are omnipresent, roaming around in teams both on foot and in mobile units," he said.

The feast kicked off just three days after the Gilroy shooting, but the police are sticking with their playbook, Whitton said.

“Our security planning for this event has not changed one iota," he said. "For us, it’s business as usual.”

The Long Island Seafood Festival is the last weekend in August on the grounds of the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, and organizers are feeling good about security.

“We are prepared, probably over-covered,” said Terry Blitman, the museum's executive director.

A mix of law enforcement officers, private security guards and emergency services officials will be on the grounds and watch from the air, Blitman said.

“They view every corner and angle of the festival through TV monitors," Blitman said. "No matter where you are in the festival they are looking at you. They even use drones and helicopters.”

The Long Island Craft Classic is next Saturday, too — a can't-miss day at Heckscher State Park in East Islip for thousands of beer lovers — and security will be tighter this year because of the Gilroy shooting, said event produce Andy Calimano. 

Every festivalgoer has to go through the same gate to get to a field bordered by woods and the Great South Bay, Calimano said. A line of 50 portable toilets will serve as an additional barrier, he said.

A team of more than 30 — security guards augmented by state and parks police — will be monitoring the crowd, Calimano said. 

“We do everything possible to keep people safe,” Calimano said. “Because of what happened in California, there’ll be a heightened awareness.”

Training for all possibilities 

Long Island police officers never know where the next threat will come from, which is why they train for every possible mass shooting scenario — a public school, a rock concert at the Nassau Coliseum or the Belmont Stakes, which can bring a crowd of 100,000 or more. 

"Attackers often change their tactics…," said Suffolk Police Chief Stuart Cameron, who has been studying security at outdoor festivals after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead. "The more difficult we make it, the more successful we can be in mitigating harm."

For law enforcement officials, vetting potential threats often starts well before a festival kicks off. One way is to pore over the websites and social media pages of radical and anarchist groups, said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder. 

Nassau officers also will meet regularly with organizers of large events to review their security protocols. If the plans and manpower aren't adequate, Ryder said, the county won't issue a permit for the event.

"You may not always be able to stop the shooter, but how you prepare, and how you train, could mitigate the problems," Ryder said.

But law enforcement officials and event organizers concede that safety at outdoor summer festivals will never be foolproof, nor will it rival security at airports, federal buildings or political rallies.

And if an attacker is determined to cause harm, officials said, there's only so much that can be done to prevent it.

"We always prepare for the unknown problem," Ryder said. "But the problem is, we don't know what the unknown is."

With Craig Schneider and David J. Criblez

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