The similarities are evident: A music festival with tens of thousands of people on the street. Right next to rows of towering condos.
That was the set-up in Las Vegas that created a perfect perch for the sniper responsible for the nation’s deadliest mass shooting.
With the Ultra Music Festival just two weeks away, Miami Police have expanded the security plan for the massively popular downtown concert — putting more eyes on the adjacent Biscayne Boulevard buildings and more sharpshooters of their own inside some high-rises.
Snipers will take up positions in buildings overlooking the park, allowing for clearer access should a shooter be seen. Armored rescue vehicles will be mobilized. As usual, marine patrol will guard the park’s eastern edge on Biscayne Bay. Those units will scan the area before the three-day festival begins March 23, drawing an expected 50,000 fans each day.
“The department sees what’s going on in other parts of the world and adapts,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. “You have to adapt your tactics to protect the residents.”
Miami police on Thursday sketched out their enhanced plans to protect Ultra Music Festival-goers from around the world during a media briefing. They made it clear that the massacre of country music fans in Las Vegas in October had provided a terrible lesson for law enforcement: The potential threats don’t just come through the gates of a large public event.
Much of the expanded security will focus on risks from outside and above the concert grounds. A detail of plainclothes officers will constantly check on the buildings along the boulevard. And more than 300 police officers — a full quarter of the city’s force — will patrol the event.
The department even intends to use real-time “virtual policing” to keep up with anyone deemed suspicious. With the help of hundreds of cameras placed throughout downtown Miami, police can now send out instant photos among themselves to anyone they might be looking for. And they’ve assigned numbers to each building to make it easier for officers to pinpoint potential problems.
Last October, a Nevada man named Stephen Paddock rented two rooms on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, smashed out two windows and opened fire on a crowd below that had gathered on the strip for the Route 91 Harvest music festival.
Paddock attached a bump stock to his AR-15 — essentially turning it into an automatic weapon — and fired off more than 1,100 rounds in 10 minutes. When the carnage stopped, 58 victims and Paddock were dead and more than 500 others were injured by bullets in what is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Miami is no stranger to big events. Thousands gather every year downtown on New Year’s Eve. And boat shows, the Coconut Grove Arts Festival and Art Basel attract tens of thousands of visitors from out of town each year. Yet few events attract the masses in a single place like the Ultra Music Festival.
“Any time you have that many people in one spot it’s worrisome,” said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina. “We’re constantly seeing what happens around the country and the world. If you can predict something, you can prevent it.”
Ultra has grown immensely popular during its 19-year run in South Florida. What began as a one-day festival of electronic sound in 1999 with a few thousand people on Miami Beach, has morphed into a three-day circus-like event that attracts well in excess of 150,000 people from all around the world.
It’s suffered its share of growing pains. After a security guard was trampled by gate crashers and left in critical condition in 2014, police clamped down and made hundreds of arrests, mostly for drugs. Elected leaders threatened to move the event from downtown if the crowds weren’t controlled.
Organizers of the event installed new 12-foot-high fencing similar to what is used in Formula Once racing around the park and came up with the idea of amnesty boxes where concert-goers can drop off drugs and weapons with no questions asked. They also created a clear bag policy so police and security can see what items are taken into the park.
So far, it’s worked.
Arrests have dropped significantly the past three years. During last year’s festival there were only about 40 arrests, mostly misdemeanors for drug possession. Now that police have regained control of the crowds, it’s allowed them to focus on more significant threats.
Colina said although there will be a large police presence this year, the goal is not to intimidate those visiting and enjoying the music.
“We want people to go to the event and have a good time, not scare them,” said the chief.