Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance, it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation. - Ronald Reagan
When former President Ronald Reagan died in his Bel Air home on June 6, a lot of work began for the numerous law enforcement agencies that protect the nation's capital and its citizens. For the first time in three decades Washington, D.C., would play host to a major state funeral of an honored U.S. president.
A state funeral for a great leader like Reagan means a lot of pomp and circumstance and a gathering of some of America's and the world's most important office holders. It also means thousands upon thousands of everyday citizens and international mourners thronging the streets, buildings, and monuments of the capital. All of which adds up to serious headaches for the officers and agents charged with ensuring peace and order on the streets of Washington.
The immense task of safeguarding world leaders and the general public for the three-day Reagan remembrance was charged to the U.S. Secret Service. Acting as the umbrella agency over all operations, the Secret Service orchestrated a multi-jurisdictional action plan with the cooperation of such agencies as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol Police, and U.S. Park Police, as well as a host of other local and federal departments. Also, the Military District of Washington, representing various branches of the armed services, was instrumental in providing additional security on land, water, and in the air.
Secret Service Special Agent In-Charge Charles Bopp headed up the security effort less than a day after the G8 Summit on Sea Island in Georgia. "Our role was to act as a conduit between agencies by promoting and developing partnerships," Bopp says. He adds that the perception of heavy-handedness by the feds in the past did little to promote cooperation and goodwill among local departments.
"The strategy was not to dictate any particular function during the event, but rather to utilize agency expertise while facilitating communication," Bopp says, explaining how the Secret Service did its best not to appear like an 800-pound gorilla. "We just wanted to cover all our bases. It's a testament to the Secret Service and its ability to handle several complex assignments at once."
The operational network for the three-day effort was placed at the Metropolitan Police Department's Joint Operations Command Center (JOCC). Securely tucked away in its headquarters and activated for special events, this command center has facilities and capabilities that rival the best military war rooms.
The command center is furnished with state-of-the-art communications, including secured telephone and computer lines. Inside, each agency has a dedicated workspace, and anyone in the room can monitor weather, air traffic, city surveillance cameras, and other critical intelligence on overhead plasma displays.
Charles Ramsey, chief of the MPD, praises the JOCC, and says it was an ideal tool for the Reagan operation. "The framework was in place. We just needed to make the necessary adjustments based on routes, conditions, and the number of people attending each day of the event," he says.
Revising the Plans
President Reagan's funeral had actually been in the works since the final days of his administration. It was planned more than 20 years ago with the goal of striking a balance between public safety and public access.
Unfortunately in the intervening years, new concerns arose that weren't even on the security radar in the late 1980s. Domestic and international terrorists have now placed the nation's capital in their crosshairs. This meant that the security plans for the funeral needed to be revisited.
Of course, Washington-area law enforcement is used to working security for events that present rich targets for terrorists. As the acting seat of the federal government the District often hosts important international dignitaries who somebody wants to kill. And with its many landmarks, including monuments and memorials, Washington is a symbol of America and that makes it the focus of hate by many of the world's evildoers.
An Initial Scare
Every officer working to protect the funeral, the public, and the VIPs during the Reagan remembrance events was keenly aware of the threat of terrorism. And for one brief and tense moment it looked like all of our fears were about to become very real.
As the massive motorcade escorted by D.C. Police made its way toward the city from Andrews Air Force Base in nearby Maryland, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrence Gainer was informed by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that an unidentified single-engine aircraft had entered the restricted airspace. With the plane bearing down on the Capitol, Gainer activated Aircon-Red, the planned response to such an event and he conference called the heads of the House and Senate.
A determination was then made to evacuate the Capitol building. The order was given, and a rush of people trying to exit the building set off a chain reaction. This carried over to the tremendous lines of people who were waiting outside the Rotunda, where President Reagan's body was soon to lie in state. Fortunately, the evacuation order was rapidly rescinded, which brought back an uneasy calm to the area, and the lines on the west side of the Capitol began to reform.
The attack precautions were triggered because a plane strayed off course. Since the aircraft could not be identified, it was whisked away by escort jets to an undisclosed location for identification. Later that day, it was reported that the governor of Kentucky was aboard the plane and his pilot, a state trooper, had turned off the transponder by error and mistakenly flown into the restricted airspace.
Now, the threat was over, but a cautious tranquility remained.
The Funeral Procession
Other than the incident with the pilot who mistakenly flew his aircraft into a no-fly zone, the funeral and the associated events went very smoothly. But only because of the dedicated work of numerous local and federal personnel.
The official state funeral began on Wednesday June 9, when President Reagan's casket was flown from California to Andrews Air Force Base. It was met by an Air Force honor guard and a 21-gun salute and then transferred to a waiting hearse for the former president's final trip to the White House.
The night before, the U.S. Park Police had secured the Ellipse and made hasty arrangements in accordance with the Reagan family's last-minute wish to provide a thousand seats as a reserved viewing area for the Reagan administration's former staff and cabinet members.
The subsequent transfer from the hearse took place at the rear of the White House and went flawlessly. The flag-draped casket was placed upon a horse-drawn caisson for the slow methodical procession up Constitution Avenue to the Capitol. A riderless horse trotted behind, symbolizing a fallen leader who shall never ride again.
The overall logistics to accomplish this feat from a public safety standpoint were overwhelming. Despite a total shutdown of the central business and government sectors of the city, the sheer volume of people who wanted to attend the event presented an enormous manpower challenge.
Security required a heavy uniformed presence of more than 4,500 personnel from a variety of agencies. To put this army of cops on the street, some days off were suspended, some leaves were canceled, and tours of duty were extended.
In addition to the police presence on the street, numerous special operations teams played a major role in maintaining security. Tactical teams took positions on nearby rooftops, sharpshooters at the ready, and bomb dogs and their handlers aggressively worked the crowds.
These teams covered the land. But there were also concerns about threats from the water and the air. Coast Guard units aided the Metropolitan Police Harbor Patrol Branch in policing the Potomac River. Above, U.S. Customs Black Hawk helicopters kept a close watch for trouble and F-16s circled the city.
In addition to the visible security precautions, there were also plenty of behind the scenes anti-terrorism response units. Biological and chemical detection was attended to at street level and in the Metro subway system below. Some pocket-sized detection units were also carried by officers, and larger, more sophisticated chemical, bio, and radiation detection units were permanently installed at key locations throughout the city.
But there was one constant threat to everyone on the ground that all the best special ops teams couldn't control, the weather. Officers and spectators alike suffered the typically brutal D.C. summer conditions of oppressive heat and humidity. However, emergency medical services were up to the task. They treated more than 40 cases of dehydration and heat exhaustion, despite the free bottled water that was available to all.