City Desk

How Did Law Enforcement Mess Up Obama’s Inauguration?

In the early morning hours of the inauguration, it became clear that law enforcement as well as the Presidential Inaugural Committee had inadequate plans in place. The Washington Post today does a great job running down the mistakes. Ironically, it was the ticket holders—the ones that hustled to get these much prized slots, put their names on waiting lists, entered lotteries, wrote their congressman, called in favors—that probably fared the worst.

I was at the now-infamous Purple Tunnel Of Doom at about 4 a.m. The tunnel is located just a few steps from D.C. Police headquarters. There were already huge crowds, long lines and chaos. Police were outnumbered and seemed pretty ill-informed. We decided to not deal with that mess and moved on to Capitol Hill. We noticed that there weren't a lot of signs directing ticket holders to the proper place to go. We had Silver tickets. Eventually the signs for silver ticket holders just disappeared. After much map checking (yes, we brought the official maps) and asking around, we finally made our way to the Silver Gate entrance at 3rd and Independence Ave SW.

A huge line had already formed to the right of the gate. I should say "line." Yes, there was a line. And then there was everybody else huddled at the gate like they were getting ready for a marathon. Again, the police were woefully outnumbered. It was one female cop with a bullhorn vs. the rest of us. I documented some of this scene at the time. Again, the scene was a lot easier for non-ticket holders.

At the Silver Gate, what made things a lot worse was the police's inability to do crowd control. The stood around. They made rash decisions. All of the sudden, the police declared the line on the left was invalid. Now, they yelled out that everyone had to form a line to the right. They probably decided this because the left line was too big. There was more room on the right. However, I don't think anybody moved. It was just too hard to tell.

There were definitely thousands by 6 a.m. They weren't formed into a line. They were a mass.

Once we got onto the Mall, the security checks and ticket checks were jokes. A cursory bag check at best. As for a ticket check—does it count if the check meant running past a cop and waving a piece of paper in front of them? If you didn't have a ticket, you could have gotten in. After a few hours, the silver section knocked down the plastic fence. Everyone ran to the edge of the reflecting pool. There were no cops to call us back to our place. It just happened.

I wandered off to pee and ended up in the purple area (I think). That section in particular seemed really screwed up. It was empty. Then there was a rush of people. These people sat on top of the portable toilets, were allowed to skate on the iced-over reflecting pool, climb trees, etc. Again, the cops were outnumbered.

The Post writes:

"A combination of official miscalculations and inadequate response contributed to a breakdown in order at half a dozen ticket entrances and intersections around the Capitol before the swearing-in of President Obama. In meetings that carried into the weekend, congressional and security officials were grappling with public outrage and trying to figure out what went wrong.

This much is clear: The Capitol Police and other officials underestimated the turnout among ticket holders. They turned down advance offers of help from volunteers and the National Guard, officials say. And police failed to respond adequately when trouble arose."

But wait. It's worse:

"As a result, thousands of people with precious tickets to the swearing-in didn't get anywhere near it in time for the historic moment. Senate Sergeant at Arms (and former Executive Assistant Chief with D.C. Police) Terrance W. Gainer acknowledged yesterday that the number could be far higher than his early estimate of 4,000. Satellite photos show more than 10,000 people swarming outside each of three security gates shortly before the inaugural ceremony began at 11:30 a.m., or 34 minutes before Obama took the oath.....

The Secret Service said there were two dozen magnetometers at the checkpoint, each machine capable of screening about 400 people an hour. But some security officials say that wasn't enough. "Do the math," one local official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is involved in the investigation by law enforcement agencies and inaugural planners into what went wrong.

The purple gate wasn't the only one developing problems. At the blue ticket entrance on the southwest side of the Capitol, which was supposed to process another 52,000 people, Obama supporters complained of slow-moving lines and conflicting information about where to file.

At the silver section, behind the Reflecting Pool, there was only one gate for 100,000 ticket holders — three fewer openings than in 2005 — because of security issues."

If anyone suffered through the morning, they shouldn't have had great expectations of an easy exit. My experience leaving the Mall was certainly hopeless.

*photo by the Associated Press.

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  • http://notionscapital.com Mike Licht

    The Nation's Capital will celebrate the effective, efficient security measures during the recent Inauguration festivities at the National Bollard Festival.

    See http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/celebrate-inaugural-security/

  • jim

    I had tickets for the blue section. There were no signs directing people and the line just wrapped around the block and curled back towards the mall. The line didn't noticeably move until after 10 am. When we got near the entrance, there were rumors that the TSA's generator hadn't been working properly and that was the reason for the delay. TSA shut the gate at noon with the line still stretching around the block. I asked the nearest TSA officer if they could shut off the generator so we could hear but got no response. The crowd was very peaceful, although the one TSA douchebag who started taking pictures of us mopes who were locked out did draw some ire.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Did the TSA douchebag give a reason as to why they were taking pictures of you all?

  • http://tavernwench.blogspot.com JenJen

    I've posted about my Blue Ticket experience at my blog, complete with photos:

    http://tavernwench.blogspot.com/2009/01/inauguration-2009-blue-ticket-to.html

    Please, to enjoy! :-)

  • Rico

    Fire Senate Sargeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer. His excuses for Jan. 20 prove he's out to lunch, breakfast, dinner and fourth meal.

  • http://tavernwench.blogspot.com JenJen

    A Capitol Police officer commented (anonymously) at one of the WaPo threads, saying he and others who had experienced previous Inaugurations were still, and honestly, blown away by the crowds that showed up for this one.

    Sounds as though they severely underestimated the whole damn thing... which, as a Blue-ticket holder, remains frustrating.

    http://tavernwench.blogspot.com/2009/01/inauguration-2009-blue-ticket-to.html

  • Brian Goodspeed

    Boo Hoo what a cry baby. My experiance at the inauguration was great. People were friendly, spectators and law enforcement. Everyone did the best with what they had. If there is room for improvement I'm sure it will be looked at. Otherwise hats off to the D. C. Police, and the people of that great city.
    God Bless President Obama.

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