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Police tighten security at weekend events

The Boston bombings prompt officials to take extra precautions for the Times Festival of Books, the Long Beach Grand Prix and CicLAvia.

Long Beach police officers ride bikes through the crowd on Friday, the first day of the three-day Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / April 19, 2013)

This weekend was always going to be a hectic one for police in Los Angeles and Long Beach. With hundreds of thousands of people descending on the cities for three major sporting and cultural events, authorities began preparations for security months ago.

But things took on much greater weight Monday, when two bombs tore through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The terrorist attack killed three people and wounded more than 170 others. Beyond the carnage, the bombing left Americans feeling skittish and forced U.S. law enforcement officials throughout the country to rethink their security plans for large upcoming gatherings like the marathon.

In response, Los Angeles and Long Beach police officials said they have scrambled to increase the number of officers and bolster the security measures they will rely on for the CicLAvia bike ride along Venice Boulevard, the Long Beach Grand Prix, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the USC campus.

“On Monday, everything changed,” said Eric Matusak, a Long Beach police officer assigned to the department’s special events team. “We felt we had a good security plan in place.… Within 24 hours, we were doing this to a whole new level.”

Officials emphasized that there is no indication the events are under any increased threat since the Boston bombings. Nonetheless, they said they recognized the need to increase the police presence out of an abundance of caution and, more important, to give attendees a sense of safety.

“We will definitely have a heightened, very visible presence. We want people to see us and know we are watching,” said John Thomas, chief of USC police. “With something as fresh as Boston in people’s minds, they are more attuned to the need for it.… The perception of safety is as important as safety itself.”

About 150,000 people are expected to attend the annual book festival, which features panel discussions with authors in lecture halls and stages across the campus south of downtown. It is the type of event that, like marathons, poses a particular headache for those trying to guard against an attack such as the one in Boston. With huge numbers of people coming and going from various access points and no viable opportunity to funnel people through checkpoints, officers are somewhat hamstrung.

The CicLAvia bike ride will present a similar challenge to the LAPD on Sunday, when a 15-mile stretch of Venice Boulevard, from the ocean to downtown, is closed to automobiles and opened to about 100,000 cyclists, joggers and skaters.

LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said that along with boosting the overall number of officers who will be patrolling the course, the Boston bombing led LAPD officials to decide to deploy undercover officers who will mingle among the crowds as well — a tactic not used at previous CicLAvia events.

“I’m not in the ‘hope for the best’ business,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said earlier in the week. “I’m in the business of planning for the worst.”

In Long Beach, about 175,000 people are expected for a weekend of auto races at the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The sheer size of the event requires months of security planning every year, said Sgt. Aaron Eaton, a spokesman for the Long Beach Police Department.

On Thursday, police officials did a security walk-through of the sprawling course area and the Police Department’s new mobile emergency operating center. On the side of the large blue vehicle, poster-sized maps detailed the race course and city streets in the area. Another showed the various color-coded passes being issued to attendees. Television screens, smart boards and monitors lined the walls inside the command center. With cooperation from local businesses, authorities will have access to many businesses’ security cameras and will be able to watch much of the grand prix area.

Long Beach police have been working with several federal and state agencies including the FBI and Coast Guard, in preparation for the weekend, Eaton said. Bomb-detection dogs will be used to sweep the course and stands, and people should expect longer than normal entry lines and closer inspection of backpacks and personal items, he added.

Like Beck and Thomas, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, a Boston native who has watched the marathon several times from the area where the attacks occurred, emphasized the need for people to report suspicious activity.

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