The Louisville Metro Police Department’s training center serves as the command center during the Kentucky Derby. Personnel can monitor multiple locations at once. (Photo by Jim Robertson)
The Kentucky Derby.
The name alone evokes visions of the power and grace of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Alysheba, American Pharaoh and the many other winners of the event that dates back to 1875.
Every first Saturday in May, and the weeks leading up, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe visit Louisville, as the city’s population during the event typically swells from roughly 650,000 to more than 800,000. The 2019 event saw nearly 151,000 people visit Churchill Downs on Derby Day to watch the 145th edition of the race, and all told, more than 300,000 people visited Derby City during the related events and festivals, such as Thunder Over Louisville and the Kentucky Oaks.
For an event of this scope, painstaking planning happens virtually every day, but it really ramps up a few months out, Louisville Metro Police Department Lt. Jill Hume said.
“It’s ongoing, but we really start looking at the Derby in February, unless there are some major changes (that need to be addressed),” Hume said.
During the months leading up to the Derby, LMPD officials met with Kentucky Derby Festival and Churchill Downs officials to begin game planning the 2019 event.
In September 2018, the group met for the Breeder’s Cup preparations, where they also talked about the Kentucky Derby.
“We talked about security in the VIP area, and there is an area called the Red Lot, which always has to be maintained,” Lt. Brent Routzahn said. “It’s one of the lots that are open on Central Avenue, and it’s where the jockeys come in.”
Recently, Churchill Downs underwent a renovation, which created some issues in 2018 that LMPD has since ironed out.
“Last year, our biggest challenge was the new lots and name changes at the gates,” Hume said. “One of the things we faced last year was where Churchill remodeled. They did all of these renovations, and they moved Gate 1 and Gate 17. (Those gates) became the Paddock gates, and it went from having no magnetometers (metal detectors) to having magnetometers at every entrance.”
Without adequate staffing, the execution of any game plan is futile. To pull off an event such as the Derby, the biggest challenge LMPD faces is manpower.
LMPD employs roughly 1,200 sworn officers, and it’s all hands on deck the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Derby week.
“It’s mandatory (that week),” Hume said. “(Officers) have to work in some capacity Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Derby Day, it can be a 12- to 16-hour day.”
One of the greatest challenges LMPD planners have every year is last minute changes to duty rosters, Hume added.
“The biggest thing is getting the bodies in place,” she explained. “We just had an officer-involved shooting, so that took five or six officers away who are now off because of it. You have to account for those things.”
In 2018, the roster seemed to change constantly, Routzahn added.
“Last year for the parade, we had several police officer-involved shootings (prior to the event), so I changed my roster probably eight times to accommodate,” he said.
During the 2019 Thunder Over Louisville, Hume said the roster had to be adjusted because 53 officers (who were scheduled to work traffic) had to be removed from the roster for various reasons, including family emergencies and military duty.
To be on top of everything, having constant and clear communication is critical with all parties involved. In order to provide security and traffic control for such a large-scale international event, LMPD has cultivated fruitful partnerships with the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, Kentucky State Police, University of Louisville Police Department, Louisville International Airport police, Lexington Police Department’s mounted unit, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentucky Air National Guard.
“I have worked with all of those agencies before,” Routzahn said. “You have to make an official request when you need to work with them, especially the National Guard. KSP and our federal partners are great to work with. A lot of it is coordinating and building good relationships. (Hume) ran it last year, and it’s easy if the previous person is competent and did it right. The biggest thing is not to break down the relationships and keep it going.”
After many years of interagency cooperation and teamwork, Routzahn said the process works seamlessly.
“Coordination is just a lot of meetings and knowing the other departments and how they work,” Routzahn continued. “The other thing is to make sure you take care of them and give them decent spots.”
“The sheriff’s office typically handles the backside (of Churchill Downs), and the Kentucky State Police are in the Paddock area and some areas in the grandstand,” she said. “They pretty much know their spots, and we all have been doing it for a while.”
When it comes to planning, much of it goes back to how things can improve from prior years. In addition to learning from previous Derbys, LMPD takes a hard look at trends across the globe.
“We are constantly studying what is going on in the world and around the U.S.,” Hume said. “When something happens, we’re looking and asking ourselves, ‘What could we have done differently, and what can we do better?’ We want to learn from it. What can we do here to better our safety or identify our vulnerabilities?”
Hume and Routzahn used the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting as examples.
“When Boston happened, I was the SWAT commander,” Routzahn said. “We immediately changed everything in how the special operations team responded. We always had some snipers and some observers up at different locations, but after Boston, I deployed the whole team, and we got snipers from other departments to help. SWAT took a more active patrol rather than just sit and wait.”
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, changes were immediate.
“We had Thunder Over Louisville right after the Boston Marathon bombing happened,” Routzahn continued. “Our bomb teams were more diligent in their sweeps with bomb dogs, so everything got ramped up.”
Fast forward to October 2017, the Las Vegas shooting during the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival occurred.
“Louisville had Louder Than Life (a music event at the Kentucky Expo Center), and as we were on our way home, Las Vegas happened,” Hume added. “So, we had the same type of music festival going on and it could have happened here.”
Because of those and other happenings across the world, Louisville began looking at ways to shore up security during Kentucky Derby-related events.
To that end, LMPD looked at what other agencies do when large-scale events are held in their areas.
“When we went to New York for the New Year’s Eve celebration and shadowed them to see what they do because they have 2-million people in Times Square,” Hume said. “We learned some of their strategies, we received great buy-in, and we were able to implement several security measures going forward.”
An example of the new strategies is creating landmarks on tall buildings, Hume continued.
“(New York) marks every true 10th floor of every building,” she explained. “We took that idea. For Thunder Over Louisville, we had placards in the window, so we knew the true 10th floor.”
Often, when a high-rise is erected, there is an aversion to labeling the 13th floor, so that number is skipped, and it can create confusion during a response situation among law enforcement and other first responders.
Hume said marking a true 10th floor of buildings makes it easier to determine where a potential threat exists in case something like what happened in Las Vegas happens here.
Another example of tactics learned from New York Police Department include the use of dump trucks to prevent car rammings, which would harm a large group of people.
LMPD also implemented a visible SWAT presence (see related story on page 18), which has become popular with Derby goers.
Being such a worldwide phenomenon, it isn’t uncommon for dignitaries to visit Louisville for the Derby. From Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 to sitting United States presidents, such as George W. Bush in 2000, the event has seen its fair share of dignitaries over the years. The possibility of dignitary visits means a plan must be in place.
“For any presidential-type visit, we have to do specific things to make it safe, and we work with the Secret Service,” Sgt. Ronald Fey said. “It causes us to create a motorcade route for them. If he goes down an interstate, we’d have to shut down the interstate in both directions. We’d have to shut down any road that crosses over or under or parallels the interstate. Overpasses and underpasses would have to be swept and staffed. We sweep it to make sure it’s clear and staff it to make sure nothing changes.”
Security at Churchill Downs would also be increased, Fey added.
“Inside security, it would be the same thing,” he continued. “Any place they would go and any building they would be in would have to be swept before their arrival.”
While a last minute decision by a world leader could create havoc, Hume said because everyone is on the same page, it all works out.
Importance of VIPs
LMPD officers and officers from partnering agencies work long hours, and it takes a crew to take care of those people.
That is where the LMPD’s Volunteers in Policing come into play.
“They are a huge asset,” Hume said. “They go through the Citizens Police Academy and then can assist and volunteer. They put in more than 200,000 hours of volunteer service each year.”
The VIPs turn out in force during the Derby and help feed thousands of officers and military service members.
“They cook and do meal prep for our major events, as well as assist with clean up,” Hume continued. “They have different locations to ensure all the officers are well fed. They arrive before any of our officers do to begin preparations.”
In the wake of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Hume said things went smoothly, and everyone involved stuck to the plan and adjusted accordingly.
“There was a minor issue on Oaks Day with a heavy downpour causing flooding under the overpass at 7th and Hill streets,” she said. “The road was closed for a few hours to let it drain, and then reopened.
Overall, Derby week was successful in terms of law enforcement responsibilities, Hume said. There were a few minor things such as the weather, which created some delays and issues. However, unlike the Kentucky Derby race, which had a controversial ending, that was not the case from a policing point of view, as traffic and security plans came together seamlessly.