How Philadelphia Ensured Public Safety During the Pope’s Visit

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The Pope did not have to worry about his safety in the City of Brotherly Love last weekend.

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Pope Francis departed from Philadelphia on his Shepherd One plane late Sunday evening, following two days of public appearances throughout the city. Philadelphians who fled the city for the weekend to escape the anticipated madness know that something important happened here in their absence, as they come home to find residual fences and police barricades, temporary no-parking notices, and a few tired National Guard stragglers in the eerily empty streets.

But these lingering signs of the pontiff’s visit only scratch the surface of the scale and complexity of the planning that went into this historic event. Even though Philadelphia residents were most concerned about traffic and public transit arrangements, this was not the highest priority concern for city officials in planning the papal events. Luke Butler, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development of the City of Philadelphia, says that coordinating security for this high-profile weekend was the most significant challenge local officials faced in the months preceding the Pope’s visit.

“SEPTA has experience with this,” says Butler, citing the approximately 600,000 people who use the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority regional rail and subway system on an average workday in Philly. “Security is the one big regulatory beast that defines this event.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated the Pope’s visit as a National Special Security Event (NSSE), meaning that the U.S. Secret Service was the lead agency responsible for planning and implementing security. NSSE events–including presidential inaugurations, Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and major international meetings–often entail security measures such as fencing, barricades, secure checkpoints, and K-9 teams.

NSSE designation also “allows for enhanced cooperation of local, state, and federal partners in establishing a safe and secure environment.” According to Butler, whose office was responsible for handling much of Philadelphia’s preparation for the big event, the city has been working in partnership with state, federal, and Vatican government officials and security agencies for the past year in anticipation of the Pope’s visit.

“Each entity has different objectives,” says Butler. “This results in varying levels of security.”

The Secret Service’s primary objective is the security of the protectee–in this case, Pope Francis. The Secret Service was willing to do whatever it took to achieve its ends, even if that meant halting all city operations and limiting the information released to the public. However, Philadelphia’s imperative to balance the competing interests of local residents and businesses, as well as the safety and health of the pilgrims, resulted in some compromises.

“We started off with negative messaging,” says Butler. “We started with a focus on restrictions and things you can’t do–where you can’t go, where you can’t take your vehicle, where you can’t get on transit. That shifted to adding more stops, accommodating trucks, and being more positive.” For example, Butler says the city decided to operate limited commercial trash pickup routes during Pope weekend, and arranged to have the trucks screened and monitored to the Secret Service’s satisfaction. One city official reportedly had to negotiate with the Secret Service to allow water bottles onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where over one million people were expected to gather–and wait for many hours, possibly even overnight, in an unseasonably warm September–for the Pope’s Sunday mass.

The Secret Service set up a secure perimeter, lovingly referred to by some as the “Francis Festival grounds,” near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Outside this central zone, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard and the Philadelphia Police Department manned the “traffic box,” an approximately two-by-three mile area closed to private vehicles and buses. Butler says the Deputy Mayor’s office also had to work with other city departments, such as the Philadelphia Department of Public Safety, as well as Vatican security and the Swiss Guard, which serves as the Pope’s personal security.

Philadelphia was the third and final stop of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. He visited New York City and Washington D.C. before arriving in Philadelphia on September 26 for the World Meeting of Families. The pontiff held several masses, visited President Barack Obama and spoke to Congress in Washington, and addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York City.

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy reportedly travelled to Italy in June to meet with Vatican Security to “see firsthand how their detail works” in preparation for the Pope’s numerous public appearances in major United States cities. Pope Francis frequently mingles with attendees at such events, which poses a unique challenge to security agencies trying to protect him during public outings.

Butler says that many of the same actors participated in planning for all three visits and the U.N. General Assembly’s 70th session meetings in New York, which overlapped with the Pope’s visit. However, Philadelphia presented some additional challenges. In addition to being less accustomed than other major Northeast Corridor cities to such enormous gatherings, Philadelphia’s open-air public mass and parade on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was expected to attract over one million spectators. New York City officials and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York eventually added an open-air motorcade route in Central Park to the Pontiff’s schedule of appearances, but fewer than 100,000 tickets were made available for this outdoor event.

Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard published a temporary rule in the Federal Register several days prior to Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. The temporary rule described the boundaries of specific security zones in the Delaware River and Schuylkill River, and prohibited vessels from traveling in these waters. The Coast Guard patrolled the Schuylkill River in armed boats throughout the weekend, and enforced a 12-mile “no-fly” zone around Center City. The Federal Aviation Administration also declared no-fly and no-drone zones over parts of New York City after city officials announced the addition of the Central Park motorcade route to the papal itinerary.

Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia was a success as far as security and safety are concerned, although Mayor Michael Nutter reportedly believes the media’s extensive coverage of the security measures taken may have discouraged many people from attending. However, local businesses, especially restaurants, overspent on food for a crowd that was not particularly interested in spending money during their visit to Philly. Additionally, some visitors described the city as resembling a “police state,” and thought the security measures taken were too extreme.