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Ex-NYPD terror expert keeps U.S. Open safe

Mike Rodriguez, chief of security at the US

Mike Rodriguez, chief of security at the US Open, outside the president's entrance at the beginning of the evening session on the third day. (Aug. 29, 2012) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Dressed in a crisp light blue and white striped shirt and khakis, Michael J. Rodriguez fields call after call on his cellphone from his U.S. Open Tennis security teams.

Late August-early September is a busy time for the former detective who oversaw parts of the 9/11 terror attacks probe and ran counterterrorism investigations for the NYPD.

For two weeks, Rodriguez, 54, is the man in charge of security at the Open and oversees 300-plus security personnel as they safeguard more than 700,000 fans, tennis players and celebrities who pour through the gates. "Mike and his team not only coordinate and work very closely with the NYPD, but with all respective security levels, the state and federal level as well," USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said.

Rodriguez himself started out as part of the security detail in 1996 when he took two weeks of vacation to do the job. Today, he works closely with his former co-workers at the NYPD, meeting twice a day every day during the Open and even leading up to the event. He has been security director for the past 10 years.

"In today's day and age everybody wants to be on YouTube," he said, referring to attention seekers who may be tempted to breach security to get 15 minutes of fame. "I'm ultimately responsible."

Paul Browne, deputy commissioner of public information for the NYPD, described the Open's security as "extensive." Among the specialty units assigned to the event are radiation detection teams, the bomb squad, the mounted police, counter-sniper teams, emergency service heavy weapons teams, transit counterterrorism, and transit anti-pickpocket squads, to name a few.

In addition, police also assist with barriers and checkpoints to guard against vehicle borne explosives, Browne said.

Armed police guards make one tennis player nervous but overall he said he's never felt threatened. "When I see guys walking around with guns it makes me think that I have to be afraid of something," said Dutch tennis player Igor Sijsling, 25, adding this is his fourth U.S. Open. "But I feel really safe here."

Rodriguez's security team -- which can be spotted wearing yellow shirts throughout the grounds and on the tennis courts -- are hired through Contemporary Services Corp., a company that specializes in providing security for large sporting events around the country.

This year for the first time, Rodriguez and his team at the USTA trained those members through an abridged version of Secret Service training, he said.

Rodriguez said running counter terrorism and terrorism investigations helped him prepare for his job when he became director of security at the U.S. Open. He said he uses his cellphone and is constantly checking emails to keep up on the various security details.

Last week the calls included facilitating the escorting of Steven McDonald, a former NYPD detective who was shot three times in 1986 and became a quadriplegic. Then there were the security detail arrangements for American tennis player John Isner, who was going to be signing autographs. It also included security detail for the arrival for the Prime Minister of Israel for a dinner honoring Billie Jean King.

Rodriguez knows that, for an event organizers say generates $756 million in revenue for New York City, security is paramount. Rodriguez may have retired as a New York City police detective sergeant, but those instincts he honed while on the job have never left him."Some people retire from my job and it's like, they are just looking to relax and get another job," Rodriguez said. "I look at this job as this job is just as important when I was in the police department."

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