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To Honor and Protect

Multiple law enforcement agencies cooperated to facilitate and secure the state funeral of former President Reagan.

September 01, 2004  |  by David J. Terestre

Lying in State

When President Reagan's casket arrived at the Capitol, it was carried off the caisson and into the Rotunda by a military honor guard. There the former president lay in state as thousands of people passed by to pay their last respects.

First to visit were the swarms of American and international dignitaries. They were followed by a massive but orderly crowd of everyday people.

Maintaining security in the Rotunda and in the crowd that snaked around the building was the unenviable task of the Capitol Police. Each person in attendance was required to undergo a thorough security screening before he or she was admitted into the Rotunda.

Most of the crowd cooperated with the security procedures. Some even heeded the warnings not to bring backpacks, pocketbooks, cameras, and other items that would slow the airport-like inspection process. However, others did not and that presented the Capitol Police with a challenge.

Rather than turn away mourners who had been waiting and sweating in line for up to six hours, security teams hurriedly established a two-tier screening process to expedite the procedures. A preliminary screening occurred about 200 yards from the building. This identified people with prohibited valuables, and these items were checked hotel-style via claim check. Other, less expensive items were simply temporarily confiscated and returned to the guests as they left. A typical, more thorough screening took place at a second station closer to the building.

Inside the Rotunda, a hush compose overtook all, while military and Capitol Police honor guards stood at silent attention. The mourners respectfully honored the former leader and noiselessly filed out, many in tears.

Capitol Police estimate that by 9 a.m. on Friday June 11, more than 150,000 people had entered the Rotunda for the public viewing. Although there were some cases of people "line jumping" the barricades, the majority of the public waited patiently in an orderly fashion.

The Final Act

The two-hour funeral took place at the National Cathedral, befittingly at the highest point in the city. This was the first presidential funeral at the church since President Eisenhower's observance in 1969.

Mourners who were admitted to the funeral included about 4,000 of the most influential people in the world, comprising many prominent political and entertainment figures. In other words, they were VIPs who needed to be protected.

MPD's Special Operations Division together with the Secret Service mobilized resources to tackle VIP security in the cathedral, while the Capitol Police provided escorts to legislators traveling from Capitol Hill to the cathedral. Officers and agents involved in the effort say that the fine-tuned plan and a little bit of luck helped them get everyone safely to the church.

Security was extremely tight at the cathedral itself. The event blueprint required closing the church for 48 hours prior to the service. Miles of galvanized chain-link fence was placed around the perimeter of the church and the adjoining 57-acre grounds to prevent any non-authorized person from gaining access to the area. Parking was restricted in a six-block radius to the cathedral. And because President Bush was giving the main eulogy, the Secret Service also dispatched its advance team for a comprehensive security sweep.

In an unusual move, the Secret Service also released the funeral route from the Capitol to the cathedral to the press in advance. It was forced to by decisions outside its control. The original procession route was changed at the request of Nancy Reagan. She felt that as much of the national day of mourning as possible should be open and accessible to the public, since the church ceremony was a closed event.

With the route public knowledge, traffic and crowd control became critical concerns. Traffic was diverted throughout the entire procession route.

Even the remaining open thoroughfares were subject to a series of coordinated rolling street closures so that they could accommodate the motorcades of dignitaries known to the police as "packages." Since so many world leaders were in attendance, the motorcades had to be funneled to the west entrance of the church in stages to allow for a smooth flow while still maintaining a secure environment. As such, the cathedral resembled a busy airport with the rapid, methodical arrival of motorcades depositing package after package to the secured cathedral grounds.

Last Salute

On Friday morning as the VIPs arrived at the cathedral for the service, the funeral procession rolled slowly forward, eliciting salutes from police and military personnel and giving the crowds one last chance to pay tribute to the 40th President.

U.S. Park Police Acting Chief Dwight Pettiford even arranged a special stop in front of the new World War II Memorial.

"It was our way to say 'Thanks' to those local cops that always assist us," says Pettiford. "We depend on each other because no department can do it alone."

The gesture was appreciated. A multi-agency contingent of uniformed law enforcement officers stood silently on the steps of the Memorial and saluted in unison. Officers in attendance say that time seemed to stand still for a moment, before the motorcade began to inch on again at a deliberate pace.

The procession twisted its way through the spectators and the police-lined streets of the Capital City for one final time. And then it arrived at the church. The timing was choreographed with Swiss watch precision, as the church bells rang out upon its entrance to the compound.

A Nation Mourns

In the cathedral, several additional procedures were implemented in order to protect the large gathering. The area was "sanitized" shortly before the program began. This entailed all of the safeguards of the first day concentrated directly upon the church compound.

Then as an extra measure of safety, plainclothes agents were interspersed throughout the congregation during the service. This effectively neutralized the threat level by placing the cathedral on lock-down status.

Upon the conclusion of the program, the funeral procession geared up for a quick return trip to Andrews Air Force Base. Pressed for time because of the Reagan family's desire for a California sunset burial, the motorcade took a more direct route out of the city and into Maryland. There, the casket was carried onto Air Force One for the trip back to Southern California.

The three-day-long Reagan state funeral events placed Washington, D.C.-area law enforcement officers and agents in the international spotlight. And they rose to the challenge with an unprecedented level of cooperation, information sharing, and organization.

"When the eyes of the world were upon us, we were standing tall," says MPD Chief Ramsey. "There was never a moment I was more proud of our department and this city."

Perhaps the pride of all the officers who were involved in the effort was summed up by Acting Chief Pettiford of the U.S. Park Police. "Sometimes you're an offensive lineman out here with no recognition, but sometimes you get to be the quarterback and everyone sees you. Either way it doesn't really matter because you're playing in the 'Super Bowl of Policing,' Washington, D.C."

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