Obama inauguration crowds overwhelmed police, panel told

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress scolded federal law enforcement officials Wednesday over why thousands of their constituents didn't get to see Barack Obama sworn in as president in January despite holding coveted tickets to the ceremony.

A classified congressional report, part of which was released this week, found that visitors overwhelmed an understaffed cadre of law enforcement officers on Inauguration Day. Crowds knocked down barriers, crowded security zones and forced many ticket-holding spectators away from their coveted viewing areas nearest the Capitol.

"These were constituents from each of our districts, who traveled often at great expense and personal sacrifice to witness this historic day," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who led the hearing along with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

Price and Wasserman Schultz are the chiefs of the Homeland Security and Legislative Branch subcommittees, respectively, of the House Appropriations Committee.

Among the problems, according to Wednesday's testimony: Spectators arrived before law enforcement officers. Signage was poor, and visitors without tickets mingled among those carrying tickets, breaking down any hope of orderly queues. Security maps conflicted.

Police tried to funnel 100,000 carriers of silver tickets through a single checkpoint and had turned down offers of help from the District of Columbia Army National Guard.

Also, just more than 300 police officers were dispatched to manage a crowd of 250,000.

Thousands were caught underground for hours in the so-called "Purple Tunnel of Doom" as emergency vehicles whizzed by and police officers did nothing to disperse the crowd.

The congressional report on the inaugural crowds found that the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Capitol Police didn't have enough support to handle the crush of people.

"It was just horrible," said Kay Singer of Hillsborough, N.C., whose blue ticket line moved just 25 feet in three hours in subfreezing weather. As the noon swearing-in time grew nearer, she abandoned the line and went to a friend's apartment to watch on television. Next time, she said, she'll just go to the National Mall without a ticket.

The chaos marred an otherwise calm day in which jubilant Obama supporters cheered for the new president and sang in the streets afterward. Police agencies reported no arrests among the estimated crowd of 1.8 million people.

Thousands of people who'd traveled from across the country with tickets from their members of Congress couldn't get close enough to see the swearing-in, however.

"What was supposed to be a positive experience for my constituents turned into an embittering one," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

"I want to go back to the Purple of Tunnel of Doom," Wasserman Schultz said.

Police officers knew about the crowds in the tunnel, which was supposed to be off-limits to pedestrians, but they did nothing because the group stood peacefully.

Wasserman Schultz wondered what would prevent such problems in four years.

"Do you know what will happen so we don't have 'Son of Purple Tunnel of Doom' in 2013?" she asked.

Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Subcommittee, said that most of the decisions about signs, tickets and other plans were made by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. That committee is run by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who wasn't at the hearing.

"I don't know what we're doing here," Rogers said.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said it was important to understand what happened because the event not only was massive but also was infused with a historic significance that was tarnished for many visitors.

"I had people coming from my district in the Bronx who were over 90 years old," Serrano said. "This was going to be emotional. This was going to be important. And that's why there's so much concern about it."

U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse testified that police were overwhelmed by what he called a "cascading" effect of ticketed and nonticketed visitors scrambling to find space after access to the National Mall closed earlier than expected.

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said that in four years, law enforcement would open screening sites earlier in the morning, add better signage, enlarge the security perimeter and monitor the crowds through online social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

"We were caught short," Sullivan said.

Only the eight-page executive summary of the congressional report was released to the public this week, as most of it is considered a law enforcement secret. Sullivan pledged Wednesday to review the report again and make as much of it public as possible.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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