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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vegas shooting raises security angst level for Spokane venue operators

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 2, 2017

Spokane Police Officer Brenda Yates, along with Spokane Arena security, keeps a watch over the area where the skaters enter the Spokane Arena ice for the US Figure Skating Championships, january 21, 2007. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Officer Brenda Yates, along with Spokane Arena security, keeps a watch over the area where the skaters enter the Spokane Arena ice for the US Figure Skating Championships, january 21, 2007. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Betsy Z. Russell and Nicholas Deshais The Spokesman-Review

The mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas has prompted continued angst and attention to security at venues in Spokane – where the same performer who was onstage during the Vegas attack performed just last week.

“It’s another unfortunate big-news day in the live entertainment business. We are a part of that, without a doubt – Jason Aldean was just in our arena a week ago,” said Kevin Twohig, CEO of the Spokane Public Facilities District, which operates the Spokane Arena and other major Spokane venues.

Twohig said venue operators like the PFD, which also operates the Spokane Convention Center and the INB Performing Arts Center are “incredibly security-focused these days.”

“We do everything we can to train our people. We use metal detectors,” Twohig said. “We really are as conscious as we could possibly be. We have a security contract with a national firm that is in tune with all of the training from Homeland Security, and they’re licensed and they’re as aware as anybody could be.”

But he said, “It’s a tough, tough business to be in right now, the security business.” He said the district is in regular communication with the police, sheriff’s office and emergency services, “because we’re all aware that any of us could be a target at any time.”

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Matt Santangelo, executive director of Hoopfest, said the Vegas shooting “hit closer to home than you’d realize.”

Hoopfest has started organizing three-on-three basketball tournaments called Las Vegas 3on3, partnering with MGM Resorts International. The basketball event outgrew its current location and is planning to host its 2018 event in the same space the Route 91 Harvest Festival, the site of shooting, occurred.

That event, which hosted 110 teams this year, is nothing compared to the size of Spokane’s tournament, which has almost 6,000 teams.

With upwards of 24,000 players, and almost 100,000 fans, Santangelo said it’s “almost a quarter of a million people coming downtown.”

To handle the masses, and any security measures needed for the crowd, is “kind of scary, even without last night’s events,” he said.

The logistics to make sure nothing goes wrong is complicated, but Santangelo said there’s the game management crew, levels of court watchers and administrators who keep tabs on every court and every street. Rapid response teams of four-to-eight people roam the courts. Still more monitor social media. Four administrators sit atop the organizational hierarchy.

“They manage the game, but also keep an eye out,” he said.

Bloomsday course has more than runners

Al Odenthal, the course director for Bloomsday, declined to give too much detail on what the annual 12-kilometer running event does for security. He did say the security team has “gone through the scenarios we experienced in Las Vegas and other places and we have contingencies in place at all times.”

Odenthal, a former deputy police chief, said Bloomsday was safe, thanks to string of amateur radio operators along the course who keep in contact with police, of which there are many.

“Short of Lilac Festival, Bloomsday probably has the largest contingency of law enforcement perimeter control” for a regional event, Odenthal said.

Like at other large events, the city has started to place garbage trucks, with drivers, at certain locations to close streets to vehicles.

Before this year’s Hoopfest, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requested a “tabletop exercise” with Hoopfest, to observe how the event’s organizers would react in all manner of scenarios.

About 100 people took part in the exercise. People from the mayor’s office, including Mayor David Condon, took part, as did volunteers for the weekend basketball event.

“Homeland security was kind of blown away, considering our shoestring budget,” Santangelo said. “It was totally reaffirming. Just to think that we don’t have to recreate the wheel. But every year it improves. Every year, it becomes more dynamic.”

A close call in Spokane

Except for three curious contract workers and Spokane Police sergeants, Spokane probably would have entered the national lexicon of mass-casualty disasters on Jan. 17, 2011.

Hours before hundreds of people gathered for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March on that day, Kevin Harpham, an electrician from Addy, Washington, had placed a motar-style bomb at Washington Street and Main Avenue.

The bomb, which he later said was a protest unity and multiculturalism, contained 128-lead fishing weights that Harpham, a “lone wolf” white supremacist, laced with rat poison to inhibit blood clots and human feces to cause infections in his intended victims.

But part-time part-time contract workers Mark Steiner, Brandon Klaus and Sherman Welpton found the backpack and called 911. Spokane Police sergeants Eric Olsen, Jason Hartman and Chuck Reisenauer decided to re-route the march and not tell the marchers just 40 minutes before it began.

“Before they knew what it was, they rerouted the march … and put Harpham at a disadvantage,” FBI agent Joe Cleary said of the Spokane police sergeants. Harpham “didn’t know where the march was headed.”

Harpham joined the march and took photographs of his intended targets. Investigators later believe that by changing the route away from the bomb, Harpham never got close enough to detonate the device with a remote car ignition switch.

Harpham later pleaded guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to hurt people as part of a hate crime. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison and is due to be released in 2039.

Instead of putting Spokane on the map of tragedies, the discovery and quick decisions that day turned what could have been a horrific act of domestic terrorism into a textbook example of response, cooperation and investigation that has been told and retold as one of the greatest wins in Spokane police and local FBI history.

SR reporter Thomas Clouse contributed to this report

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