Public spaces are tricky to police — and attackers know to exploit it

Event venues may be ramping up their security after Monday's bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, U.K. But curbing attacks on so-called soft targets may prove a near-impossible task, security consultants say.

Venues boost security post-Manchester, but blast highlights risk of soft targets

A police officer stands guard near the Manchester Arena on Thursday, one day after 22 people were killed in a suicide bombing just outside of the venue, where an Ariana Grande concert was taking place. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It's a reaction that's becoming all too familiar: In the wake of an attack, there comes the promise to beef up security.

After Monday's bombing outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, U.K., a number of event venues around the world were swift to say they were upping their own measures, including Winnipeg's MTS Centre and Toronto's Air Canada Centre.

The ACC — which will host back-to-back shows by Toronto R&B star The Weeknd later this week — says it is boosting the number of security staff on its grounds, while the MTS Centre says it will employ a bomb-sniffing dog.

Yet curbing attacks like the one in Manchester may prove to be a near-impossible task, says Waterloo, Ont.-based security consultant Todd Gottschalk, who has run security for Cirque du Soleil tours, bands and music festivals.

"You can't guarantee 100 per cent that this is not going to happen," he said of the ISIS-claimed suicide blast, which killed 22 people. "The most you can do is limit your liability."

Forensic officers leave the Manchester Arena after investigating the scene of the bombing. The blast took place outside the venue, and beyond the security barriers. (Dave Thompson/Getty Images)

The bomb went off just outside the arena, when the crowd was leaving the show — a so-called soft target that is tricky to police. 

Gottschalk suggests having more police and security roam these vulnerable public spaces, looking for the unusual. If something appears suspicious, Gottschalk said security should "be able to pick up on that right away."

Though he admits that's likely tough when it comes to suicide attacks.

"You can never judge somebody's state of mind," he said. "Suicide bombers are very troubled people … Nothing will stop that cause."

'Not a matter of tightening up tonight'

Entertainment venues have been targeted before: Gunmen inside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris killed almost 90 concertgoers in 2015, while 39 people died in Turkey from a gunman who stormed an Istanbul nightclub last New Year's Eve.

But the heightened sense of security that comes after these attacks often fades away, Gottschalk said, until another one happens. "It's not a matter of tightening up tonight. It should [have been] at that time."

He said it is crucial for events to have up-to-date crisis control and emergency evacuation plans to serve as some sort of guide should something happen.

Consultant Todd Gottschalk (in black) headed up security for some Cirque du Soleil's tours for a decade. He's been involved in the entertainment security industry for 30 years. (Todd Gottschalk)

As the investigation into the attack unfolds, more details will be learned about how it happened. 

Steve Summerville, a former Toronto police staff sergeant who trains and consults venues on security matters, says the Manchester Arena's security isn't necessarily to blame.

"There is no suggestion that the venue for the [Ariana] Grande concert did anything wrong. Nothing occurred inside," he said. "I would assume that they had checks and balances to get in."

The risk, he said, is at the event's perimeter, where security doesn't always extend.

Summerville has co-ordinated large-scale security operations — including Toronto's massive 2003 SARS benefit concert — and says there's simply not enough security or police to prevent every presumed threat.

Winnipeg's MTS Centre said they will be using a bomb-sniffing dog as part of enhanced security measures at the arena after Monday's deadly explosion in Manchester, U.K. (CBC)

"You cannot prevent ... 2.5 million people from accessing a public street," he said, referencing the population of Toronto.

"There are systems in place to create a reasonable level of protection but … there would be no way to ensure [nothing happens] without usurping people's rights."

'Do not let it deter you'

Attackers exploiting the areas just outside of the secured barriers is becoming an established tactic: Similar situations happened with the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place close to the finish line, and with last year's blasts at Brussels' Zaventem Airport and Istanbul's Ataturk Airport.

In situations like these, it is "extremely difficult to do anything at all" to avoid the threat entirely, says Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer with CSIS.

"[ISIS] have developed this strategy, basically," he said. "Anywhere, any time and anyway, when there is a crowd, there is a potential target."

"It's so troubling," adds Gottschalk. "Entertainment is there to provide joy."

Some musicians have cancelled their concerts in wake of Monday's bombing. But for others, the show goes on. And if the show is a go, Gottschalk says eventgoers shouldn't be afraid to attend.

"Do not let it deter you from enjoying your life … This is what these people want," he said, referring to the suicide bomber. "Let them see that it doesn't bother you."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.


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