Homeland Security and Public Safety

Securing the Presidential Inauguration: An Inside Look

Protecting the president at the inauguration takes coordination and lots of law enforcement.

Sometimes the people at an inauguration jeer the president and his parade. Sometimes they’re happy. Unprecedented security protects the president and everyone who comes out to see him.

Pennsylvania Avenue was first sealed in 2001, but hundreds of protesters overcame short fences and overwhelmed understaffed barricades. Four years later, taller and stronger fences were specially ordered to stretch for miles. In 2009, those imposing steel rectangles helped control the record crowd celebrating President Barack Obama’s election. Both of his inaugurations saw citizens smiling for pictures with police instead of throwing food at them or burning flags.

“We had a big battle two inaugurations ago with a group that tried to breach the fence, but they never approached the parade route,” said Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. “They never breached our fence.”

Law enforcement departments have managed violent protests and millions of people in the nation’s capital, and careful planning means they may be ready to handle both at the same inauguration. Coordination between hundreds of local and federal agencies is a “ballet” run “like clockwork,” according to the National Guard and the Metropolitan Police Department. About 800,000 people attended this year’s inauguration; 1.8 million in 2009. Riot gear and gas masks were standard issue when 300,000 people came to George W. Bush’s first inauguration and when 400,000 people arrived for his second. Lately the heavy gear stays in storage as more and more police commute from as far away as Seattle.

“We brought in 86 different law enforcement agencies — more than 2,000 cops,” Lanier said. The D.C. National Guard provided all military ground security before inviting 120 soldiers in 2005 to help. In 2009, more than 7,000 soldiers were asked to be there. Six thousand arrived in 2013.

The Secret Service is in charge of the National Special Security Event, partnered with the Metropolitan Police, U.S. Capitol Police, D.C. Fire and Emergency Management, D.C. Department of Transportation, U.S. Park Police, DHS, North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Joint Task Force National Capital Region.

Only 250,000 tickets let invited guests pass the tightest security and enter the Capitol’s west lawn. The only major glitch of 2009 led thousands of those ticketholders to be trapped for hours in the Third Street tunnel under the mall. Lanier said it was closed both years to everyone except emergency vehicles.

“The truck bringing the barricade to block that tunnel had a flat tire and he was delayed just long enough to let people start filling into that tunnel,” Lanier said. When the city’s filled to capacity, there’s nowhere for crowds to go, she added, but this year Twitter and text alerts kept subscribers away from congestion citywide. A new social media hub monitored the public’s tweets to head off problems before they grew. “We have 2,400 special events here a year,” she said. Experience helps.

“The biggest problem we had was the night before when marchers went to Chinatown and broke windows,” Lanier said. The same group of anti-war protesters briefly disrupted traffic by lying on the pavement. No arrests were made. Five permits for demonstrations near the parade route were granted.

U.S. Capitol Police arrested three people during the inauguration. Spokesman Shennell Antrobus said one had an open intoxicant and one was a fugitive from justice. “There was one demonstrator within the crowd who was subsequently arrested for breaking laws that pertain to the Capitol grounds,” Antrobus said. “But there were small demonstrations around the Capitol grounds that our officers successfully managed, which resulted in no arrests.” At an inaugural ball that evening, a Tennessee State trooper arrested a pickpocket.