As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs take their marks on the 50-yard line Sunday at Super Bowl LV, 70 federal, state and local agencies will be flanking Raymond James Stadium.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers, including 500 personnel from the Department of Homeland Security, are descending on the most sparsely attended National Football league championship ever, amid a pandemic that has been raging in the U.S. for almost 11 months.
Roughly 22,000 people will file into the stadium Sunday — under a quarter of the usual Super Bowl crowd — a number that includes 7,500 vaccinated health care workers hailing predominantly from Central Florida with tickets courtesy of the NFL.
While the in-person attendance will be severely limited, the Super Bowl is the most watched televised event of the year, attracting 100 million viewers or more. For that reason, the security stakes are exceptionally high.
"It's a nationwide event. It's watched around the world, so it could be a platform that if someone wanted to exploit it for their message, someone wanted to do some type of attack, it could be an arena where you'd want to do it," said FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson this week.
The Super Bowl marks the nation's largest national security event since President Biden's inauguration. And it also happens to be the first Super Bowl in which one of the teams will be playing at home, which could raise other security concerns.
"If you had told me 12 months ago that we would have Tom Brady as our quarterback and the Buccs would be playing in a home Super Bowl during a pandemic, I probably would have told you that you were crazy," Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said Wednesday.
Dugan, who recovered from COVID-19 last month, conceded that law enforcement has been tested in the run-up to the big game. "It's brought a different dynamic to hosting the Super Bowl when your home team is here. Clearly, in Tampa, we don't like to do anything easy," he quipped.
But the biggest challenge remains the pandemic.
"There was just so much uncertainty with regard to what the game would look like," Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge for Tampa, Kevin Sibley, told CBS News. That uncertainty extended to how many people would be vaccinated in time. "We really had to refocus efforts. As you know, rumors of a vaccine have come out and that's changed things. The NFL has had been forced to make some difficult decisions regarding game day attendance."
Officials from more than a dozen agencies will operate out of an intelligence operation center stationed at FBI's Tampa field office.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has classified Sunday's game as a SEAR-1 event, requiring "extensive" federal interagency report. Black Hawks from Customs and Border Protection will patrol the night skies, enforcing a "no fly zone" above Tampa. Florida residents have already spotted low-altitude helicopter flights over downtown Tampa in the run-up to the game, while the Energy Department National Nuclear Security Administration measures for radiological anomalies.
Hundreds of law enforcement officials traveling by foot, golf cart, bike and golf cart will patrol the stadium's security barrier — some with explosive detection canine teams in tow. The Tampa Police Department is the lead agency for the Super Bowl.
The game also follows the first terrorism advisory bulletin published by the Department of Homeland Security in over a year. Last month, DHS Acting Deputy Secretary David Pekoske issued a Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletin warning the public of a "heightened threat environment" in the wake of the U.S. Capitol siege. That bulletin, however, concerned the threat of domestic violent extremism, rather than foreign or foreign-inspired terrorism. Pekoske noted that while there is no specific or credible threat ahead of Super Bowl LV, officials continue to monitor online chatter from potential bad actors.
One routine constant ahead of Sunday's game is law enforcement's take-down of sex trafficking rings and counterfeit game-related sportswear and tickets attracted to the big crowds. Homeland Security Investigations confiscated 284 fake sports championship rings from a memorabilia store in Florida, last month. The agency announced Wednesday it had seized 169,000 counterfeit sports memorabilia so far, totaling $44 million dollars ahead of Super Bowl LV.
Sibley warned fans about the downsides of bartering for cheap, counterfeit items. "If you think you're going to buy a jersey to remember Super Bowl 55 for the next five years, there's a good chance after your second wash, that counterfeit good is going to fall apart," he noted. "The second thing is, where does your money go? I don't know anyone out there that would willingly send their money to a criminal-origin organization or a terrorist organization."
Crowd control could pose an unusual challenge for the Super Bowl this year because Tampa's home team will be playing. Public health officials worry that local residents will be going to restaurants and bars to cheer on the Buccaneers.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor issued an outdoor mask mandate for during Super Bowl week. But Chief Dugan noted officers will likely stick to enforcing social distancing guidelines. "We really don't want to get into being the mask police," Dugan added. "We're just going to rely on people being responsible citizens."
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