St. Louis readies for NCAA crowds

Security officials aim to be unobtrusive while ensuring safety.
Thursday, March 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Expecting thousands of guests in town for college basketball’s premier event, police say they will keep their guard up for any trouble without applying a stifling press on revelers in the city’s first Final Four in a quarter century.

About a year in the planning, security downtown during the next several days, including Saturday’s Division I semifinals and Monday’s title game, will be measured, not as smothering as some complained things were when Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis six years ago.

Back then, media accounts previewing tight security were blamed for scaring away would-be viewers of the pontiff along motorcade routes.

This week, police are quick to differentiate between a visiting pope and this annual worship of college hoops.

“This is more of a positive event where we’re trying to put our best face on the city,” Police Chief Joe Mokwa said. “I’m not so much worried about something negative happening,” compared with security concerns involving the pope.

Though no streets will be blocked off around the Edward Jones Dome, the basketball venue, a force of several hundred city officers on foot, bicycle and in cars will be visible around the dome and popular partying spots, Mokwa said. Undercover police will be monitoring parking lots.

Bomb-sniffing dogs will scout the dome daily for explosives.

“We’re just trying to put a strong face on the presence of police,” Mokwa said. “Obviously, we’ll be attentive when we have such a large number of people.”

Police, who have been and will remain in “constant contact” with the FBI, have not fielded any specific threats, Mokwa said.

The NCAA and police are keeping some security measures under wraps, offering few specifics beyond discussing the checkpoints fans must walk through before the game.

“Since Sept. 11, the awareness and sensitivity has been heightened universally. That’s no surprise,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s vice president of Division I men’s basketball.

The NCAA and police advise fans to arrive early, travel light and be patient. Game-goers will be searched with metal-detecting wands before being allowed into the dome, a security precaution not used when the NFL’s Rams play there.

“The only other time we’ve done that is when the pope was here, and perhaps for one or two concerts,” said Bruce Sommer, director of the America’s Center convention complex that includes the dome. “But this (the Final Four) is generally viewed as a national event, and it’s treated with the highest kind of security you can.”

Purses and other bags will be inspected inside the dome, specially configured to seat roughly 47,000 for basketball.

“It will be a minimally intrusive security process,” Shaheen said. “At this point, we’re expecting a safe, exciting Final Four weekend.”

On the nearby Mississippi River, the Coast Guard will continue routine patrols past the towering Gateway Arch landmark but “not do anything specific for the Final Four” security-wise, spokesman Lt. Bill Clarke said.

St. Louis has had some practice in all this, having hosted eight NCAA basketball events in the past 11 years, along with men’s Final Fours in 1973 and 1978 at the old St. Louis Arena.

The security level will be consistent with the city’s hosting of two World Series games last October and far less severe than the pope’s visit, which drew 18 miles of temporary fencing along the motorcade routes and concrete barricades that blocked off cross streets.

During the pope’s visit, interstate exit ramps closed as part of security overseen by the Secret Service, given that the pope was a head of state. Police warned people who work in downtown St. Louis to either take the day off or use public transportation to avoid long traffic jams. Several businesses simply shut down for the two days.

With the Final Four, the police chief isn’t worrying much.

“Everyone knows it’s going to be exciting,” Mokwa said. “I think people will have a good time and enjoy the weekend.”

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