The deadly terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England that killed 22 people and wounded 59 is shedding light on security weaknesses at Santa Monica’s annual Twilight Concert Series.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack which killed concertgoers as young as 8 years old. British Prime Minister Theresa May and police said the suspected bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, died in the attack on the Manchester Arena.
Preliminary reports indicate the bombing may have happened outside the security perimeter at the arena after the concert ended. Some concert-goers said security was haphazard before the show, with some people being searched and others allowed inside unhindered. The bombing took place at the end of the concert, when the audience was streaming toward the city’s main train station.
While the Pier has two controlled entry points for the Twilight Concert Series with private security personnel who perform bag checks, anyone with a large bag can freely walk onto the beach where the majority of the crowd hosts picnics with their friends and listens to the free music. There is a sweep of the venue before each event.
“The security of Twilight is a major discussion and we’ve had weekly meetings with Santa Monica PD to review security plans, crowd management and traffic plans, and other safety measures,” Santa Monica Pier’s Executive Director Jay Farrand said. “Our non-profit has complete confidence that the SMPD is assigning their best resources to ensure the continuing safety of the Twilight Concerts.”
Security concerns at Santa Monica’s annual concert series became a hot button issue this year over escalating costs. When the series began back in 2007, just 16 officers guarded the free event. However, as crowds swelled, so did the police presence. The Santa Monica Police Department now schedules as many as 150 officers to work the concerts. The five-year contract with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to assist with large events is estimated at $1.3 million.
During this month’s episode of “Ask the Chief” on City TV, Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said her department approached the City and asked to either move the concert series to a safer location or reduce the number of shows.
“As they say, they heard us,” Seabrooks said. “So now instead of having ten concerts in the series it’s now eight. We’re starting a little bit earlier so we’ll finish earlier.”
SMPD has estimated the crowd size during some nights to reach as many as 30,000 to 40,000 people. The picnickers stretch out far out on the sand to the south side of the pier, many of them sitting beyond where they can even hear the music. Seabrooks maintained her officers are fully staffed to respond in the event of a “catastrophe at the beach.”
“This event was creating a drain in some ways that was very concerning,” Seabrooks said. “We always plan for what could happen – not what will likely happen – but what could happen.”
Farrand declined to discuss the exact number of officers for this story, but said organizers are reviewing the ratio of police to private security officers to save money. Security costs are the biggest portion of the concert’s budget.
“Pier corporation staff works closely with the police,” said Judy Abdo, Chair of the Santa Monica Pier Corporation’s Pier Board. “They are meeting with them often in the planning and they will work out what the best deployment is and there will be every expectation of safety at the concerts each night.”
Some have questioned whether the concerts are worth the risk and cost. In January, Arts Commissioner Phil Brock wrote the concerts had become a security burden to the city and should be canceled and reimagined.
Brock reiterated his safety concerns but says he does not support canceling the popular concert series.
“I am always worried that there is no security for that crowd on the beach,” Brock said about the lack of screening measures for those sitting on the sand. “There is no way of securing a public beach in that way. We’ve seen crowds of 30 thousand people and it’s very concerning.”
The Arts Commission does not have authority over TCS.
Farrand has hired a third-party auditor to review security plans for the concert series this summer in an effort to improve overall planning for next summer. In addition, Farrand encourage attendees to RSVP through Facebook to help police have a better gauge on crowd size for any given night.
“We’re looking forward to a great safe summer, and through the collaborative efforts the non-profit, the City management and public safety divisions, feel we can find a cost-effective and safe way to keep Twilight viable,” Farrand said. “The City’s own Wellbeing Index listed Twilight as a key example of community connectedness, a primary driver of community well-being, so we all owe it to this tradition to work as hard as we can to ensure its sustainability.”
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless, Rob Harris, Sylvia Hui and Lori Hinnant contributed to this report.