Fourth of July events: how cities are beefing up security post Boston Marathon

This Fourth of July, Detroit’s RiverWalk, where many people usually watch the fireworks, will be closed. Atlanta, meanwhile, has a multi-agency operations center that will allow various officials to combine efforts.

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Frank Christopher passes through a security checkpoint on the Esplanade before rehearsal for the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert at the Hatch Shell in Boston, Wednesday. Cities around the country are increasing security this holiday with the memory of the Boston Marathon bombing in mind.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April, law enforcement officials are tightening security for Fourth of July fireworks celebrations across America.

Although the measures are preventive, they are also a response to some of the revelations that came out about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of setting off two bombs at the marathon.

The two men, investigators say, built their homemade explosives using powder extracted from fireworks commonly sold each summer. And the pair’s original plan, federal authorities say, was to strike the Fourth of July festivities in Boston.

Last Friday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security jointly released an alert to state and local law enforcement across the country, warning that “consumer fireworks ... can be misused by criminals and violent extremists to construct improvised explosive devices.”

Although there isn’t an immediate threat, the FBI’s field office in New York City dispatched two bomb technicians to Boston to assist officials from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which coordinates the annual Fourth of July concert and fireworks on the Esplanade. About 500,000 people are expected to gather for the event Thursday.

In addition, Boston authorities have revised what people can carry into the fireworks site. Items are allowable only if they are carried in clear bags, and coolers with wheels are forbidden. The checkpoint cutoff is 4 p.m., hours before the start of the fireworks. That same hour, the Massachusetts Avenue bridge, once a popular site for spectators, will be closed to both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Similar measures are being taken in cities across the country Thursday:

  • Atlanta officials are installing bag checks at Piedmont Park, site of the city’s annual fireworks display. Backpacks are not allowed. The city is also opening a multi-agency operations center for three days this week, which will allow federal, state, and local officials to combine efforts from a single location.
  • In Detroit, people will not allowed to congregate for the fireworks display before 2 p.m., and the RiverWalk, usually a site for spectators, will be closed. A cooler and bag check will be set up at three entrances, and once capacity is reached, no more people will be admitted. “In light of the tragedy that struck Boston earlier this year during the international marathon, we have heightened security for our fireworks. There will be zero tolerance for any type of disruption or illegal behavior,” Detroit Mayor Dave Bing told reporters.
  • New York City officials are not allowing Macy’s, the sponsor for the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks, to add an East River display, which would benefit onlookers in Brooklyn and Queens. The city is citing budgetary and safety concerns, according to the New York Daily News. Instead, the display will be staged along the Hudson River. “The city just did not feel it was worth that money, especially since the Boston Marathon experience and the bombings. The cost of security to the NYPD and, ultimately, to New York City would have been high,” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz told the newspaper.

Dan Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington, says he is skeptical that added security at public events like fireworks displays will ultimately prevent an attack.

“I don’t think there is much to do to prevent soft attacks beyond active intelligence,” Mr. Byman says. “It is extremely hard to secure these events because there’s almost an infinite number of targets.”

Nonetheless, he says he does understand the urgency to strengthen security, because it helps assure the public that its safety is a priority.

“A lot of terrorism is psychological, so reassuring people they are safe has a very valuable effect for counterterrorism,” he says. “After Boston, no one wants to be accused of lying down on the job.”

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