A police officer perched high above the crowd during NIOSA 2015 at La Villita. Photo by Scott Ball.
A police officer watches the crowd from high above during NIOSA 2015 at La Villita. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When Fiesta kicks off Thursday night at the annual Fiesta Fiesta at Hemisfair, it will be the start of an 11-day event that last year attracted 2.5 million people to festivals and parades across the city.

Planning for Fiesta events includes a well-coordinated effort among the city’s first responders and event organizers to keep revelers safe.

The Fiesta Commission announced Monday that for the first time, large handbags and backpacks will not be permitted at NIOSA – Night In Old San Antonio. To provide a safer environment, backpacks and bags larger than 12-by-12-by-6 inches are prohibited, and officials are recommending the use of clear bags.

Clear bags are required at the Alamodome, which hosted the NCAA Men’s Final Four, an event that brought tens of thousands of people into the city for a weekend of games and events.

The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) said that having people carry clear bags worked so well at the Final Four that the department will be pushing the same message during Fiesta.

“People just accepted it … there were no pushbacks or complaints, especially given the situation in the past year,” SAPD spokeswoman Michelle Ramos said, referring to mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs.

San Antonio’s Office of Emergency Management, in coordination with SAPD and the Fire Department, is also planning to promote its “See Something Say Something” awareness initiative, which also began during the Final Four. The campaign uses two giant red backpacks, now on tour throughout the city, and public service announcement videos, to encourage people to recognize and report suspicious activities.

Just prior to Fiesta in 2016, a new open-carry law in Texas, which allowed licensed individuals to openly carry a holstered handgun in public spaces, prompted SAPD to broaden its concept of public safety at Fiesta beyond the typical alcohol-related concerns. Ramos said there were no problems that year, and several events banned open carry.

More recently, violent attacks at large public events, like the music festival shooting in Las Vegas last fall and several terrorist incidents in Europe, have raised concerns about public safety and prompted new efforts.

“Our city is so committed to coordination and communication,” said Janet Holliday, president of CE Group, an experience marketing firm. “Behind the scenes, there are more cameras, more eyes, more meetings about preparedness. Fiesta is time for celebration and time for everybody to enjoy, but there is an underlying sense of preparedness and due diligence. I can definitely feel that shift.”

Though there is an annual spike in arrest for alcohol-related incidents during Fiesta, law enforcement records show no marked increase in other crime during the month of April, when Fiesta events occur. In April 2015, there were a total of 711 violent crimes and 5,701 property crimes, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Violent crimes for that same period went up (926) in 2016, and so did property crimes (6,197). Last year, violent crimes totaled 847, and property crimes 6,394.

There are “thousands” of officers slated to work Fiesta and in command posts at various events. “We are very well prepared,” Ramos said.

Nel Belt, chairwoman for the 2018 Battle of Flowers parade, said security for all official Fiesta events is coordinated through the Fiesta Commission, with police presence and security tailored to each event.

More than 350,000 are expected to attend this year’s Battle of Flowers on April 27, with people of all ages in chairs and bleachers lining the route from East Grayson to West Martin streets. More than 11,000 march or participate in the parade itself.

The view of the Battle of Flowers parade heading South on Broadway. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Battle of Flowers parade heads south on Broadway. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“We want everyone to have a wonderful time and to be safe and be healthy,” Belt said. “So we hire, at the recommendation of the police department, off-duty officers to be visible along with on-duty officers, and we work with the Pearl, the forming area, and the Pearl security team to limit the amount of access into that area.”

To “better be safe than sorry,” Belt said parade organizers also hire four off-duty bike patrol officers to supplement on-duty officers from SAPD, the fire department, and emergency medical services. In addition, there are between 30 and 50 volunteers from local military services helping with crowd control, some in uniform and others wearing yellow volunteer shirts.

“This is a banner year for us being on national TV,” Belt said. “We don’t want overkill, but we want a nice presence to make the parade move smoothly so there are no glitches.”

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A news photograph shows the scene of the 1979 attack during the Battle of the Flowers parade. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections

Many in San Antonio recall the 1979 sniper attack that killed two and wounded 51 others attending the Battle of Flowers parade. But no similar incidents have occurred since then.

For the 200,000 or more who will attend this year’s Texas Cavaliers River Parade on April 23, safety is a No. 1 priority, said Scott Christy, parade vice marshal.

“We work closely with SAPD, the fire department, and other emergency first responders,” he said. “We follow their instructions very closely. They’re the pros at any type of emergency situation. They will lead, and we will follow.”

Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said in an email that local law enforcement has plans in place “to ensure everyone has a safe, fun Fiesta experience.”

“As always, I advise our residents and visitors to be smart, be safe, and to report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement,” he stated. “Our law enforcement agencies did an incredible job during the Final Four and the MLK march, and Fiesta will be no different.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.