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The civic center parking lot carnival is adding a fence and more police to control the crowds.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
Organizers of the Drew Expo are expanding security measures for the upcoming carnival after a series of fights disrupted last year’s event and spilled over into nearby establishments.
The traveling carnival, which is held in the Roanoke Civic Center Coliseum parking lot, begins its 23rd run in Roanoke on Wednesday. Last year, fights and the resulting raucous crowds led to the early closure of the carnival. Although the event employed four off-duty police officers for security, more officers were called to the event on Friday and Saturday.
At one point last year, about 500 people were running through the civic center parking lot, ripping their shirts off and threatening one another. As police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd, the chaos migrated across Williamson Road into the McDonald’s. In the wake of the chaos, civic center general manager Robyn Schon said she and city officials demanded security changes.
“Last year’s event reached fever pitch with people going bonkers out there,” Schon said. “And we can’t have that. We aren’t going to tolerate it.”
She said representatives from Drew Expo readily agreed to increased security. Jan Wilkins, the local promoter for Drew Expo, said this year’s carnival will be enclosed by a 6-foot chain-link fence with limited access points.
He also is working with Roanoke police to expand their presence, another stipulation from Schon and the civic center. Wilkins said he will devote about $4,000 more to off-duty police officers to serve as security at the event.
“We’re spending more money to make it safer and do more business,” he said.
While officers responded and ended the fights, no arrests were made in the incidents. Wilkins said he wasn’t sure what incited last year’s crowd but is focused on exerting more control over the crowds this year.
The fence, Wilkins said, will be constructed in the civic center parking lot once the carnival vehicles have arrived. The organizers are spending more than $8,000 on the fence. In total, Wilkins said Drew Expo will pay $16,000 for security measures in hopes of avoiding another early closure, after spending about $4,000 on security last year. He estimated that the fights cost him about $20,000 in lost revenue.
With more money devoted to security, Wilkins approached Roanoke police to develop a more specific plan. Roanoke police Capt. Sam Roman and several other officers developed a strategic plan to control the carnival crowds.
Roman said the plan is designed to keep officers assigned to the event in a proactive stance, as opposed to simply reacting to incidents such as last year’s fights.
This year, Roman said, uniformed officers will be much more visible, and the department will station its mobile command center at Drew Expo, allowing more officers to remain on site.
“We’ll have the ability to do anything we can do at the police department,” he said.
Roman said the fence also should alleviate some of the problems that stoked the chaos last year. Instead of carnival attendees roaming freely onto and off of the grounds, the fence will create points of access where the crowd can be managed.
If someone is asked to leave the expo, Roman said security personnel will have the ability to enforce the decision.
“We want to make sure we have measures in place where they couldn’t sneak back in behind a car or truck,” he said.
It also should prevent a repeat of the incident that spilled into the nearby McDonald’s, Wilkins said.
“The madness began out among the parked cars and spread across Williamson Road to the McDonald’s, where much more damage was done,” he said.
Schon said the carnival came with some inherent risk but had not presented serious security challenges in previous years.
“When you get people out in the 90-degree heat, and it’s summer and they’re in a festive atmosphere, something is bound to go wrong,” she said.
Roman said officers are used to managing events that draw large crowds. The focus is on stopping any problems before they multiply.
“It’s human nature,” he said. “You’re going to have a few problems. Our goal is to minimize that as best we can.”
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