FBI, law enforcement stress local readiness in wake of bombing

Law enforcement officials from across the region said Tuesday that they have no reason to think the upcoming Jazz Fest is a target for the kind of violence unleashed on the Boston Marathon on Monday, but they urged the public to be vigilant and report suspicious behavior.

The FBI’s New Orleans field office held a news conference Tuesday to reassure residents and discuss how different law enforcement agencies respond to threats of bombings or shootings. Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Anderson called the event a reaffirmation of the collaboration and commitment that has existed between agencies since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Officals planned the news conference prior to the Boston bombing that left three people dead, and it was initially tied to this week’s guilty plea by William Bouvay, who admitted to calling in false bomb threats to LSU in September. However, the news conference took on special importance after Monday’s tragedy, as officials tried to assuage the public’s fears about the likelihood of a similar attack happening at one of the New Orleans region’s many public events.

“I do want to emphasize that there are no current bomb or shooter threats in the state of Louisiana,” Anderson said.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said that with Jazz Fest approaching, he understands that people might be feeling nervous, but he said there are no indications that the festival might be targeted. No changes have been made to the security planned for the event, although Serpas said the plans are still being examined and tweaked.

Serpas said that events with security checkpoints can search attendees. Just like at the marathon, police also use bomb sniffing dogs prior to events.

However, if an event doesn’t have a security checkpoint and doesn’t have monitored access, there isn’t much officials can do to prevent an attack, he acknowledged. They can stay vigilant looking for information or suspicious signs, but it’s not always feasible to turn open access events into closed access events.

Serpas noted that New Orleans just finished successfully hosting the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and the French Quarter Fest, which all feature large numbers of people milling about in public areas. The region is familiar with handling large crowds, and he said he is confident those events can be enjoyed by the public.

“We have no reason and we have no intelligence to tell us that we need to be concerned,” Serpas said. “Our department is ready for that.”

Louisiana State Police Spokesman Doug Cain also noted the difficulties in handling events with large crowds, like those that gather before an LSU football game, in part because officers are outnumbered. Officers often have to strike a balance between respecting the rights of attendees and maintaining safety, he said.

“We live in a free society, people can come and go,” he said. “We don’t want nor should we be in the business of shaking everybody down.”

Officials at the news conference stressed that they are constantly priming the pump from information, and they are always holding training exercises to determine how to handle situations when they arise. In the wake of bombings in Oklahoma City and shootings in Colorado and Connecticut, the FBI has established new monitoring systems to alert them to suspicious purchases and other activity, Anderson said. Officials touted the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, a national effort that links federal and local agencies. Anderson added that the FBI is planning to hold a training seminar next week to discuss responses to mass shootings and other events.

“I think our proactive and reactive response has gotten tremendously better,” Anderson said.

However, officials said the most important aspect of security is the help of the public. Serpas compared sifting through information after tragedies to putting together a puzzle and noted that the public often has missing pieces. Officials urged residents to stay vigilant and be willing to point out any suspicious behaviors, regardless of how insignificant they may seem.

“If you see something that you don’t recognize, let someone know,” said Serpas, who has called Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis to express his condolences and offer support.

Anderson read from a list of about a dozen incidents in the past year involving threats of violence at schools and government buildings, and said that often authorities were notified by alert citizens. Crimestoppers Executive Director Darlene Cusanza said residents can call in tips to the group’s hotline and said they should see their contributions as vital not as irritants.

“We are the force multiplier,” she said.

Monday’s news conference was attended by officials from Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Tammany, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes. Besides the focus on the region’s readiness, officials also reiterated their commitment to dealing harshly with any threats regardless of whether they are carried out.

New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro called those who use threats of violence to intimidate others, “cowards.” He said his office and the office of interim U.S. Attorney Dana Boente will react swiftly to any arrests.

“We certainly feel nothing but scorn and contempt for the individuals that would try to go out and disrupt the lives of law-abiding citizens,” Cannizzaro said.